The Milk of Human Kindness

Shavuoth is a mysterious Jewish festival.  Being neither an exact anniversary nor conforming to the harvest cycle in the land of Israel, it seems to exist outside of time, an exception  to the chronological flow of the Jewish seasons.  Just as puzzling is the custom of eating dairy products on the festival.  Ascribed by many to the inhibitions of the Jewish people at Mt. Sinai, over the laws of kashruth, there are myriad reasons explaining the consumption of dairy products on this Festival, although none are entirely convincing.

Perhaps each of us  needs to build our own understanding.  For the Davis family in Melbourne, Australia, dairy products were an inseparable part of life – they were the family business.  Not only was I born on the family’s dairy farm on the outskirts of town, but my grandfather David, who had purchased the farm twenty years earlier,developed it into a thriving milt delivery business.

Succeeding him, my father dramatically expanded this business by adding yogurt.   Keren Dairies, taken from the Hebrew words for ” ray of light” became a symbol of pride for the small Jewish community of Melbourne.   It proved that Jewish immigrants, raised inthe cloistered villages of Eastern Europe, could defy prejudice and ridicule and by rising to an Australian challenge,  become successful men of the land in their own right.

My grandfather was a quiet, circumspect man who rarely spoke of his past.   But occasionally he would share a story that gave me a glimpse into his early struggles.

One of those stories I have never forgotten.

In the early 1930s he would rise before dawn to deliver milk in a horse drawn dray to customers in the inner suburbs.  He would rattle his canister filled cart from door to door, ladeling milk into pails and bottles.

On this daily journey he would often come across an obstreperous man who would grandfather while  lie in wait for him.  The man would regularly hurl a stone or shoe at my grandfather while jeering at him with antisemitic slurs.  He would sometimes go so far to place heavy objects on the road to prevent his passage.

The abuse continued intermittently four years. But one day it stopped and the man disappeared. My grandfather asked some of the man’s neighbors what had happened to him.  They explained that he had suffered a stroke and could no longer leave the house. Inquiring further he discovered that his tormentor was close to destitution and had no relatives.  From that day forward my grandfather would leave him milk everyday. He did not cease the practices until the man died.

I was astonished when I first heard this story.   When I asked my grandfather why he did this, he answered simply, ” He was probably thirsty and I was carrying milk,.”

I remembered my grandfather’s actions a few years ago when I saw a photograph posted in a edition of the Ma’ariv newspaper . It showed an IDF soldier providing water to one of five handcuffed terrorists, captured on their way to executing a bombing in Israel.  Among the five members of the terrorist squad, two were carrying explosive belts.  A further 17 kilograms of TNT was found inthe trunk of their car.

Similar reports reveal the way in which the IDF provided food for the trapped terrorists and their hostages inside the besieged Church of the Nativity in 2002.  There are remarkable accounts of Israeli medics treating surviving terrorists, rushing them, often inthe same ambulances as their victims, to Israeli medical facilities in order to save their lives.

Many decades and thousands of miles separate my grandfather and the IDF soldiers.  Yet they are bound by the enduring legacy of Jewish tradition and the respect for the sanctity of life.  It is taught to us in the Book of Exodus   “when your enemy’s donkey falls down, you must help to raise him up.”

The promise of holiness, delivered to the Jewish people at the time of the giving of the Torah on the festival of Shavuoth, is embedded int his simple teaching. It defines our concept of humanity.

It is one of the supreme ironies of my life that my grandfather died on the first day of Shavuoth.  It was also fitting that his great grandson, born 27 years later, would be named Matan David, the gift of David, linking the boy to his forbear and to the climatic event of Jewish history – the giving of the Torah.

Perhaps the most enduring legacy he can absorb is that even in the face of adversity, the milk of human kindness must still be delivered.

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