Tuesday, Feb 20, 2024

Messages for a Lifetime

It was Erev Shabbos Nachamu, close to noon. About 5,700 miles away in Yerushalayim, women were about to light the Shabbos licht. Someone had something else on his mind. He had to call America right before Shabbos.

I was the recipient of the call. The caller was Yossi Newman. Before making aliyah to Eretz Yisroel, he was a neighbor and good friend of mine.

When the phone rang and his number popped up, I was confused, even worried. I knew that he was in Eretz Yisroel and this call was cutting it close to licht bentching in Israel. I wondered what was so important that he was calling so close to his Shabbos.

I answered the phone a bit confounded, especially when all he said when I answered, “Hello,” was, “I called to wish you ‘ah gutten Erev Shabbos Nachamu.’”

Then he went on to refresh my memory. The summer before my father’s passing in 2007, my father was staying in my home for Shabbos. Erev Shabbos, we were in the car together and we drove by Yossi’s house. Yossi wished us ah gutten Erev Shabbos, and my father responded in a very clear and calculated way: “Ah gutten Erev Shabbos Nachamu.”

It must have made an indelible impression, because Yossi called to recount that story and impart those very wishes with those very words to the son of the originator of the blessing.

That one word, the change of a nuance of the simplest, so often used expression, the addition of one word was so powerful that someone, seven years later, still calls me up to invoke that special flavored ah gutten Erev Shabbos.

My son recently recounted to me an unbelievable story that he heard in the name of Rebbetzin Rivka Schiff, a daughter of the Brisker Rov, which reverberates this point.

The Brisker Rov had escaped to Vilna with his four sons, while leaving two of his daughters, Lifsha and Rivka, behind. It was not known to him whether they escaped the Nazis’ clutches or survived. He reached Vilna with his sons, but the plight of his daughters was unknown. One Shabbos morning, the Rov awoke to a little girl excitedly tapping him on his shoulder. “Tatte!” she exclaimed. “Gut morgen! Mir hoben gekumen, boruch Hashem! Totty! Good morning! We arrived, boruch Hashem!”

While the excitement and emotion for the Brisker Rov must have been enormous, he did not miss a beat. “Oif Shabbos, mir zogt nisht ‘Gut morgen.’ Mir zogt, ‘Gut Shabbos!’ On Shabbos, we don’t say, ‘Good morning.’ We say, ‘Good Shabbos!’”

It is this attention to nuance, even in the most intense emotional moments, like reuniting with your long-lost daughters, that separates our gedolim from the common man.

I thought about the myriad sayings and adages that became unique because of my father’s special twist on them.But more so, I thought of the impact of a kind word or a tiny insight that he brought to light by tweaking what we performed perfunctorily and added a certain spice to it.

As I looked back a few paragraphs ago, I noticed that I perfunctorily typed the words, “All he said when I answered, ‘Hello.’” I left it there the way I originally typed it, but I certainly hope that it was not what I answered when I picked up the phone. This one came from my mother. She would chide me if I ever answered the phone, “Hello,” on an Erev Shabbos. “‘Hello,’” she would say, “is for Sunday. On Erev Shabbos, you answer the phone, ‘Ah gutten Erev Shabbos.’”

And it still irritates me when I hear my Five Towns neighbors talk about Shabbos or Yom Tov “lunch.” My mother ingrained in us that “lunch” is for Monday. You only have seudos on Shabbos and Yom Tov. Period. Of course, to so many, those ideas come naturally, but for someone who grew up having the only “seudah” in a five-mile radius, it became a point of expression.

I ponder the sayings that one invokes in a unique manner that leave an indelible impact on not only your progeny, but your friends and acquaintances. I get a bit emotional when people tell me things that my father used to say. Some I do not recall him saying to me. Others I had heard from him, but it is always great to have a reminder.

Recently, a baal tzedakah reminded me that my father once told him, “What you keep for yourself, you leave behind. What you give away, you take with you.” It was a saying that his mother had always told him, and now, some 85 years later, it is still floating in the world of Torah adages.

There were sayings that my mother imparted from her mother. For example, if I would forget to call one day, she would invoke her mother’s response: “Gut morgen far heint, un ah gut morgen far nechten – Good morning for today and a good morning for yesterday.”

And then there were so many subtleties of mussar, lessons taught without words spoken.

My son, Reb Zvi, once told me how my father had made an impact upon him without telling him anything explicitly. My father had been at our home for Shabbos and left to davening a bit early. My son, Zvi, accompanied him. On his way to shul, my father began saying Birchos Hashachar.  Zvi was a young boy at the time, and, for some reason or none, he did not respond amein to his brachos. My father, his Zaidy, kept quiet.

A few minutes after he had finished brachos, my father began telling him a story, as he always had a maysah to relate. This story was about Rav Chaim Volozhiner, who had a hakpodah not to make a brocha unless someone was present to answer amein. One night, Rav Chaim awoke in middle of the night and was in need of a drink of water. But there was no one awake in his presence to answer amein. Suddenly, there was a knock on his door. It was a talmid who came with an emergency shaylah for his rebbi. Rav Chaim quickly answered his question and then made a shehakol, utilizing the talmid’s availability to answer amein. As the story has it, Rav Chaim searched for the talmid the next day in order to thank him. When the talmid came to Rav Chaim, he was clueless as to what his rebbi was referring to. It seemed that it must have been Eliyohu Hanovi in the guise of this bochur!

My son told me that “at the time, it did not cross my mind that there was an underlying message that Zaidy was trying to impart. Yet, with time, I had picked up on Zaidy’s silver-coated, yet everlasting message. If Rav Chaim Volozhiner was strict not to recite a brocha unless there was someone present to answer amein, then you can at least recite amein upon hearing a brocha. Zaidy could have simply told me that I should have answered amein to his brachos. He chose not to.”

Sometimes, indirect mussar can be more powerful than an open admonishment.

I was thinking about the subtle way in which my father guided me, delicately and wisely, that I was indeed different than the mostly non-religious neighbors with whom I grew up. How he carefully lured me away from a neighbor’s television without yelling, or how my mother ensured that we would not end up going to places that most of the boys our age were going. I can’t help but think of the posuk in this week’s parsha, “You shall know in your heart, k’asher ish meyaser es beno…that just as a man chastises his son, so does the Hashem, your G-d, chastise you” (Devorim 8:5).

The Ribono Shel Olam does not openly chide us. His hints are subtle. But if we listen to what’s going on, the way a loving son listens to a father, I think we can get a clear picture…and an indelible impression.

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