Friday, December 29, 2006

What Goes Around

This Table Talk is dedicated to the refuah sheleima (healing) of Rachel bat Miriam.

+ + The Story + +

Last night Rav Frand told an uplifting Holocaust story.

The story came to him via email, from a Dr. Zacharowitz in New York. The story is about the Dr. Zacharowitz’s wife’s grandfather, who was a rabbi in Poland named Yosef Lichter. Rabbi Lichter and his sons survived the war by disguising themselves as Polish peasants. In all those years of Nazi occupation, they were never captured. There were many factors that enabled their survival, but the rabbi used to cite the tradition that the mitzvah of sanctifying the new moon each month gives a person karmic “merit” and protection. So he was extremely diligent about performing this mitzvah. Throughout the war, regardless of the apparent danger, he went outside when the moon was waxing in order to make the bracha.

When the Nazis were defeated, the Russian occupation began. Now, in those days (it seems like ancient history) the Russians were Communists. For them it was like a religion. In fact, part of the communist religion is to make fun of other religions like Judaism which they considered stupid. If you were not a card-carrying communist, then you were suspicious. It is interesting that from the early days of communism, many Jewish people believed in that religion.

Well, when the Russian occupation began, they imposed a strict curfew, dusk to dawn. Anyone who was found outside after dark would be arrested. You can guess where this is going.

When the new moon came, Rabbi Lichter stuck to his beliefs and went outside to sanctify the moon. He was seen and he was arrested. The police took him to an underground interrogation room where he found himself in front of a Polish communist judge. The judge told him:

“You have been accused of violating the curfew. How do you plead, guilty or not guilty?”
“Not guilty, your honor.”
“How can you plead not guilty when these good policemen found you outside your home after dark.”
“Your honor, I’m a Jew, and we have an ancient custom of sanctifying the moon every month. It is my religious duty, and I was fulfilling it as I have my entire life.”

Now, how do you think a card-carrying communist would react to this Jew telling him he broke the law for his ancient religion?

He asked the police officers to step outside, and when they had closed the door, he smiled at the rabbi and started speaking to him in Yiddish. He said, “Rabbi, do you remember when you were about fifteen years old and walking home from school one day and stopped some boys from beating up a smaller boy named Chaim? That’s me! I’m Chaim! I don’t believe in that religious stuff but I’ll never forget how you stuck up for me.”

He called the guards back in and told them, “This is a good communist man, please escort him home and make sure he arrives safely.”

Kindness is the most important thing we can cultivate and teach. When you have a guest in your home or your city, make sure they get home safely. Walk them at least halfway to their car, make sure they have everything they need to get home safely.

Not only is it good for others, it will come back to help you one day when you need it. And it will take you by surprise.

+ + Advanced philosophical food for thought + +

The first chapter of Pirkei Avos (the Talmudic book of ethics) states:

The world stands on three things: on Torah study, on meditative practice, and on acts of kindness.

Rabbi Yonah (13th C Spain) explains:

In anticipation of humanity’s future performance of three activities – Torah study, meditative practice, and acts of kindness – God determined to create the universe.

OK, so those three things are pretty important. How do you make sure you’re doing your part to keep the world on its feet?

Torah study is pretty straightforward. Meditative practice I wrote about a few months ago here. What about acts of kindness? Obviously, any act of kindness is important, but Maimonides (12th C) asks us to put extra energy into four:

The Torah mitzvah to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) teaches us to behave toward other people in the same manner in which we would like them to behave toward us. The Sages established certain acts of chesed (kindness) as standards of fulfilling this mitzvah. These acts are: visiting the sick, comforting mourners, burying the dead, and escorting guests.

Shabbat Shalom.

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