I was famished after my concert last night in Princeton, NJ. Finding kosher food on the road is a perennial challenge and this well into the second week of a frantic Chanukah tour. Man cannot live on salad alone! Thankfully, a dear fan in the area offered to cook up her homemade chicken specialty for me and we drove through the New Jersey darkness towards her home in East Windsor. At one point I heard her exclaim, “oh, dear!” and sure enough a full-size deer carcass lay right in front of us. At 40mph she didn’t have time to react and we rolled right over it, dragging it under the car for several feet. As I was sickened by the thud of hitting this once beautiful animal I was reminded of the commandment not to put a stumbling block before the blind. Since I was the last one to witness the hazard it was now my responsibility to move it.
I didn’t move it. We drove on joking that we could have had venison for dinner. A few miles later we saw a bad accident. A fresh accident, with steam pouring from the engine of a smashed compact car and an unconscious woman in the driver’s seat. As we swerved around the scene we saw someone running to extricate the woman from between the seat and the air bag. My first instinct was to stop and help but I wasn’t at the wheel and I reasoned that others were already helping. We just drove on.
Our eventful ride culminated in a lovely dinner and the lighting of the Chanukiah. In spite of the good cheer, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I should have stopped the car, that I missed an opportunity to reach out and help. What would I want done if I was stuck in that car? Some call it Jewish guilt. I call it the Hineni (here I am) Response. Jews are incapable of standing on the sidelines. Something in our spiritual DNA goes haywire when we perceive someone in trouble, see justice unrealized, witness lives in jeopardy. The question is where does that response come from?
One could cite the intransigence of our forefather Avraham when faced with the potential annihilation of Sodom. He had just entered into an eternal partnership with God and God chose to include Avraham in the plan. Avraham’s impassioned argument to rescue any righteous Sodomites earned him the title of First Jew in History. Noach obediently built the ark. Avraham fought a knockout round with the Creator of the Universe to save even a despicable nation.
I’d like to argue that a far more subtle but equally powerful biblical anecdote contributes mightily to our Hineni Response. By mid-December we can feel the glow of the Chanukah candles and are reading the last Torah portions of the book of Genesis. Chanukah is a time of wintry weather and gloom, during the shortest days of the year. It’s at this time that we light the lights, offering hope and illumination to a besieged world. True, we are described as a nation of priests, but we are also a nation of dreamers. Our mere existence is proof of the Eternal and our return to Israel after a 2000 year exile is a testimony to the power of our dreams. I think there’s no coincidence that it is at this time of year we read about four sets of dreamers in the weekly Torah portions, Yaakov, Yosef, the baker and wine steward and Paro (Pharaoh.) While all their dreams reveal much about human nature, I’d like to focus on an easily overlooked nuance regarding the dreams of the baker and wine steward.
Shortly after being sold into slavery, Yosef had been framed by Potifar’s wife and thrown in jail. He spent over a decade in an miserable Egyptian prison, which I imagine was not quite a Club Med. In spite of the dire circumstances, Yosef still was able to notice the downcast expressions on the faces of the baker and wine steward. This is the key moment, the Genesis of the Exodus. Like Moshe who stopped to notice the phenomenon of the burning bush when everyone was walking right by, Yosef took the time to perceive their mood change and comfort these two prisoners.
Big deal, you might say. But because Yosef had his eye out for the downtrodden in his midst and ACTED on that sense of compassion, the wine steward referred him when Paro needed his seven-skinny-cow dream interpreted. Thanks to Yosef’s small gesture, he became the CEO of the country, the Jews obtained salvation from the famine in Canaan and the stage was set for our eventual miraculous exodus from bondage. Case in point: we never know when our small gesture will change history.
The fact is that God operates through history in a series of small gestures. The intriguing saga of Esther saving the day in the Purim story is another such step-by-step tale of national salvation. God’s name is never mentioned overtly but it is impossible to read the script and not see God’s hand on every page. This is one of the last books of the bible, as if God is preparing His people to live in the realm of small gestures rather than overt miracles.
My wife and I often regale Shabbat guests with the circumstances of our meeting. We are both avid cyclists and our precious paper cut ketubah, lovingly created by my artist mother, features a pair of bikes parked at the base of a family tree. Twenty years ago my friend Mark Nathan from the Semester at Sea program called to encourage me to join him on the Rosarito to Ensenada bike race. At the finish line I met an enterprising young man who was launching his first charity bike ride to raise funds for the American Lung Association. I talked my brother Yom Tov into taking the ride across the island of Catalina with me. In the meantime, Shira’s roommate Karen had heard of the ALA program at her urban conservationist job. Had Mark not called to invite me, had Yom Tov not been willing to come, had Shira’s roommate not taken the job at Tree People…I rest my case!
When the slavery in Egypt became unbearable “God heard our cries.” Our rabbis teach that the word “cry” is plural because God hears the cry when we are totally fed up AND the cry before we actually scream. How many of us are screaming right now? With increasing financial burdens, job-search woes, health issues, aging parents, kids at risk. God hears these cries even when they are silent murmurs that keep us awake at night. Jewish law maintains that it is meritorious to help someone financially well before they are on the street, to be aware of our fellow man’s struggle when on the surface everything seems fine.
The point I’m trying to make is that everyone you know has worries and fears. Imagine how you feel when someone takes the time out of his or her busy life to hear you, to help you, to care. Just like with Yosef and the baker, he or she may not be able to make the problem go away. We are judged not by the result but by the initiative. In fact, the merit of any given mitzvah does not require the completion of the act. If one is thwarted from the full performance, for example, if you ran out of a gas on your way to visit the sick, you still get heavenly reward for your intention. Taking a moment to share a word of kindness can be enough to restore the recipient’s faith in humanity. What we really need these days is our faith restored.
Social scientists have espoused the Broken Window Theory which states that allowing for broken windows and graffiti as the status quo in a city creates further disarray. Broken windows lead to more broken windows and eventually, squatters, fire and theft. The societal norm becomes “trash the city, no one cares.” We live in a world where our faith in humanity is trampled. Worldwide poverty, terror, crime, drug abuse and graft are ever on the rise. It seems outrageous that fixing a few windows can change the crime statistics on the urban scene. But it works! Every random act of kindness has ripple effects that rock the heavens.
Here’s a beautiful way to read the language that the Torah uses when we were redeemed from slavery: at the seder table we recite, “God will redeem you with an outstretched arm.” I had such a powerful “aha moment” when a rabbi pointed out that the sentence could be read: “God will redeem YOU WITH THE OUTSTRETCHED ARM,” in other words, when we create a world where people have their arms outstretched to help others, only then do we merit redemption. Avraham started the Jewish people with a mission of action and compassion. Yosef’s pivotal moment transpired because he had the presence of mind to be aware of another individual’s suffering. And the ones who actually got out of Egypt to form the Jewish people were the ones who looked out for their fellow man.
Here’s my blessing to all those who had the patience to read to the bottom of this essay: may you have the peace of mind to hear the music of creation. May you have eyes to perceive God’s hand behind all the events in your life and be grateful for every moment. And may you play a leading role in the perfection of the world by seizing every opportunity to practice random acts of simple kindness. As for me, next time I find someone in need on a frigid New Jersey night, I’ll stop!