The story is told of an American bochur learning in Yerushalayim who traveled to Bnei Brak one evening for the wedding of his cousin. The wedding ended far later than usual, and by the time another cousin who lived in Yerushalayim dropped him off in front of his dirah, it was already half past two in the morning. Exhausted, the bochur waved goodbye to his cousin, then entered the building which housed his dirah.
Only after reaching his floor and door did he realize that his key – usually in his pants pocket – was not currently in his possession. He’d changed into his Shabbos suit and neglected to transfer his key as well. The door, often not locked, was locked tonight. The boy knocked very softly, in case someone was up inside and would hear, but there was no response.
After a few minutes of waiting and hoping, he retreated, not knowing if it was right to wake up his roommates. Not knowing where to go, he wandered aimlessly, soon finding himself at the famed Zichron Moshe shtieblach. He learned a little bit, but soon found it difficult to keep his eyes open. Having noticed some of the local eccentrics sleeping on various benches around the room, he shrugged to himself, lay down on the bench where he’d been learning, and was out like a light.
He was awakened – disoriented and having no idea if he’d been asleep for ten minutes or an hour – by an insistent tapping on his shoulder. Opening his eyes, he found himself staring straight into the face of an elderly beggar who seemed none too happy.
“Dos iz mein platz,” the fellow was saying, indicating the bench. The poor bochur had unwittingly taken the man’s “place.”
The Power of a Shalom Aleichem
A true story I recently heard that was told by a well-known marbitz Torah was what reminded me of the above humorous (depending on whose perspective, perhaps) incident. It is indeed an amazing story, illustrating the power of one small kindly gesture.
A certain Jew, a special person though non-chareidi, moved from overseas to Eretz Yisroel. When Shabbos arrived, he entered a shul – one whose members ascribed to a worldview similar to his own – and sat down in an empty to pray. After only a few moments though, someone indicated that this was his seat and that he’d have to move. Shrugging, the man got up, found another empty place, and sat down once again to pray. No sooner had he begun, however, than he was once again informed that this was someone’s seat.
The scene was repeated over the morning, and suffice it to say that the man experienced quite an uncomfortable davening. Though it was no one’s fault that the shul was a full one, this was definitely not a pleasant situation. Therefore, when the next Shabbos arrived, the man decided to try a different non-chareidi shul, though this one was a bit further away. Unfortunately, his experience there was much the same, and he was bounced from seat to seat over the morning.
On his third Shabbos in Eretz Yisroel, the man found himself cautiously entering a local chareidi shul. Though this was not his “type” of crowd and his knitted kippah would already mark him as “different,” he couldn’t stomach the thought of returning to either of the first two shuls he’d tried.
To his pleasant surprise, no sooner had he entered and found an empty spot than the rov of the shul himself walked over and gave him a hearty shalom aleichem. Upon hearing that the man had recently moved to the neighborhood, the rov invited him to feel at home. Upon consultation with the gabbai, the rov then returned to show him where there was an available seat so that, if he so wished, he could sit there every week. Though the seat was toward the front of the shul, and this man clearly did not fit the image of a typical mispallel there, that clearly made no difference to the rov. A Yid was a Yid, and he was welcomed and made to feel as comfortable as possible.
Indeed, this man ended up davening in that shul on a regular basis from that week on. Not only that, but while he himself was observant, he had never been a part of the Torah community in any meaningful way, and his children and grandchildren grew up as part and parcel of that community, becoming true bnei Torah and kollel yungeleit, building Torah homes filled with purity and dveikus baShem.
All because of one warm shalom aleichem.
What Was He Thinking?
On the opposite side of the spectrum is an incident that I know of firsthand, where a fellow moved into a new neighborhood and began davening in one of the local shuls. The shul was more like a shtiebel where people came and went, and no one ever officially greeted this newcomer to the shul or neighborhood – which happened to suit him just fine. Being originally from Brooklyn, this person was quite the city boy and very used to the impersonal way people generally ran their lives in large cities: You don’t bother me and I won’t bother you.
What was an entirely different matter, though, was when after about a month of davening in the shul, one of the gabboim approached him.
“I noticed that you’re davening here pretty regularly,” the gabbai began.
“Yes. I moved just down the block,” the fellow responded, thinking that the gabbai was merely being friendly.
“I just wanted to let you know,” the gabbai continued, “that we try to encourage people who daven here regularly to become members and pay membership. You don’t have to, but it’s not easy to pay the shul expenses, you understand, and membership is one of the ways that really helps.”
The fellow smiled, said he’d think about it, and offered a friendly goodbye. Inside, though, a horrible feeling was spreading. It was one thing to have a live-and-let-live philosophy, where people basically take care of themselves, where there is no warmth or camaraderie and where everyone comes, does his own thing, and leaves. Right or wrong, in big cities, people do not usually enter into conversation with those standing nearby, and this may be just another such place.
Entirely different, though, is not to welcome someone, not to offer a smile or a hello, not to offer a chair or a bit of advice such as where to find which siddurim, but to then approach the man and ask for money. If you’re going to ask for membership fees, at least welcome the person as a member!
The point here is not to bring up somebody’s negative experience. No doubt the gabbai meant no harm and would probably bend over backwards to help another in need. At issue is the lack of thought that should go even into our most mundane and simple day to day actions.
Someone is in our seat and we ask him to move. We may be in the right. We may not be doing anything wrong. Still, if we’d stop and think for a moment, how does that person feel? Is there a way we can keep our seat while still maintaining his dignity and sense of belonging? Can we perhaps point him to a seat that is open? If not, can we just possibly allow him to remain where he is for the remainder of this tefillah? Perhaps he’s just here this one time and it won’t be an issue in the future. Can we – children of Avrohom – allow a guest to have our seat this one time while we remain standing, for the sake of hachnosas orchim, no small mitzvah?
No doubt, it isn’t always that simple. Some shuls are consistently crowded, and if someone sits in our seat today, someone else will be sitting there tomorrow. (We can try perhaps to come a bit earlier, before others have taken our places.) The idea, though, is to stop and think for a moment, to put ourselves into someone else’s shoes, to act not out of habit, but out of thought. Is there something that we can do, or that we should not do, in this particular situation, that might make another Yid feel just a little bit better or more welcome or at ease?
Too often, we witness another person doing something that defies understanding and we wonder: What was he thinking? The answer is usually that the person simply wasn’t thinking. We are good people, almost all of us. Sometimes, we simply need to think – about the other fellow – just a little bit more.
SHARING WHAT’S “OURS”
I remember the first time I was in a bais hachaim, a cemetery, when I was quite young, and happened upon a tombstone upon which was engraved, in big, bold letters, “RESERVED.”
Until then, I’d seen such notices posted on front row seats at camp plays, near coveted parking spots, and upon boxes that held perfect esrogim at the esrog dealer. It struck me as quite funny that someone would place a “RESERVED” tombstone in a cemetery. That one had already bought and reserved the spot I understood, but why engrave it on a tombstone? (I had no idea at the time of the many perfectly legitimate reasons for such a practice.)
The truth, however, is that the only place that is truly “reserved” for a person is the tiny area his body will occupy after one hundred and twenty years on this earth. That area is sacrosanct, and no one may intrude upon it. Until that time, let us be flexible. We may have our routines, our way of doing things, our places of comfort, our friends, our properties, and our personal acquisitions. It may not be easy to give up on any of these. For some of us, it is far more difficult than for others.
Even so, stop a moment and think: Do I want all of this to be truly “RESERVED” just for me? Am I at that stage yet? There will come a time when I will have my spot, something mine that no one can encroach upon. Until that time, the more I give, the more I share, the more I bring others into my spot, the greater that spot will be when I eventually receive it after one hundred and twenty.
That rov in Eretz Yisroel who went out of his way to share his time and his shul with a stranger with just one small act that so many others simply failed to think about doing ended up enriching the life of that stranger, his children, grandchildren and all future generations. He enriched the lives of all the members of his shul, who gained in so many ways by welcoming that newcomer and his family, and he enriched his own life through the chesed he’d done for somebody else.
Then again, if the newcomer hadn’t found a place in that shul, he could have always tried Zichron Moshe!