Friday, February 21, 2020

We can never underestimate the power of a kind gesture, even a seemingly insignificant one…

When the body of a murder victim is found between two cities, the elders of the closest city must perform the eglah arufah ceremony, in which part of that process is the elders proclaiming that they did not kill this man. Although the implication of this is that this would seem that it’s possible for one to think that the elders did indeed cause the murder and therefore they need to proclaim to the contrary, Rashi comes along and says that surely such a possibility isn’t plausible. But rather, the connotation of the elders’ declaration is them intending to declare: “We did not see him and let him depart [out of the city] without food or escort.”

Rashi is a bit difficult to digest. The implication of this declaration from the elders is that had they known that a guest was present and had they provided him with food and escort, the forshadowed murder would not have occured [or at least the chance of it happening would be much less]. Thus, Rav Henoch Leibowitz points out that it seems from Rashi that the Torah is equating a negligence in feeding or escorting a guest with actually being a participant in the murder of this guest! Now, we can somewhat understand that not giving this guest food on his way out can be tantamount to an involvement in his murder, for had he been given food he perhaps would have had the physical strength and energy to overcome the obstacles that would threaten his existence. But if you think about it, why is escorting him so important for his survival to the point that a lack of it can contribute to his inability to overcome potential obstacles along his way? What’s the overwhelming significance of a simple escort!? Rav Henoch explains that in order for someone to thrive and overcome obstacles in life, it’s not enough to simply be physically nourished, but rather it’s imperative that a person be emotionally nourished as well. Escorting a person may not physically aid him, but what it shows to the guest is that you care about him and that he is important.

If you think about it, what is escorting anyway? Just walking with the person a few steps? Is that really going to give a person the moral support and emotionally fortify him to overcome difficult challenges along his path through life? This following point needs to be made: many times we think, “Oh, what does a good morning do already?” “What’s a small act of kindness going to do,” “What’s a few moments of my time going to help anyway?” We tend to underestimate the power of the little things. We sometimes can think that only if we do significant heroic acts will we be able to change the world and help others in a real way. This is all counter to Jewish thinking. We learn from the story of the eglah arufah that many times all it takes is a simple few seconds of positive gesture. A good word, a small help and positive body language for another...these are the things that cause a powerful impact in the emotional makeup of another person and can give one the resilience to battle through and become great people. It’s common for people to go through life with the subconscious thought nagging them in certain instances of “I just can’t do it.” Many times this kind of thinking is just a lack of confidence, when a person doesn’t hold themselves in a certain self image that gives him or her the energy to prevail. But when this person receives some kind of positive gesture in any way from another person he begins to feel good about himself, and naturally the image he perceives of himself will be enhanced, his spirit will be lifted, and his courage to take on the challenges of the day and beyond will increase. Sometimes all it takes is just a moment to come out of our own busy-ness and self absorption, and apply our minds to the needs and well-being of another person. Listen to this incredible story I heard from Rabbi Y.Y. Jacobson that really brings out the messages we are discussing here:

One Erev Pesach, Rabbi Y.Y. was on the exercising bike, checking his emails. He sees an email from a woman saying: “Hi, Rabbi, it really bothers me that every Jewish holiday is all about food. What is the obsession about? Can you help me?” Rabbi Y. Y. thought maybe he would reply during Chol Hamoed or afterward, as right now it was getting late. But he felt a certain urgency in the message and he wrote back a brief message saying how she is right and how we are so into food, etc., and he made the email empathetic and funny. About six weeks later, Rabbi Y.Y. said he got an email again from this woman, and when he read it it sent shivers through his entire body. The email said: “Rabbi, you do not understand what your reply to me did and meant for me.” She wrote an extensive email detailing her challenging life history of abuse, depression and anorexia. She then wrote that despite having a husband and three kids, at that moment when she sent the email she was standing by the train ready to commit suicide by jumping into the tracks to escape from all the pain she was going through in life. She continued: “But a couple minutes right before the train came, I heard a buzz from my phone and I saw the email from you. When I realized that a rabbi like you had time to acknowledge me on such a busy day it made me think twice and helped me reinforce my self worth. And then I called my husband to come save me.” From I can’t, to I can...

He could have reasonably emailed at a later point. He had a very legitimate excuse. But all it took was just a few moments out of his own busy-ness to acknowledge and uplift another person. Who knew that it can even save lives…

By Binyamin Benji

Binyamin Benji is a graduate of Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan, and Wurzweiler School of Social Work. He currently learns in Lakewood, and is the author of the Sephardic Congregation of Paramus’ weekly Torah Talk. He can be reached at [email protected]