By Shimon Posner, Shliach in Rancho Mirage, CA
Motzoei Shabbos I was scheduled to fly out of Palm Springs on United at 808PM to San Francisco, where I would catch the 10:30 to Kennedy. I was going to be picked up by my married children – and I must add because I have the bragging rights – by my granddaughter, and we would drive to Reading, Pennsylvania to attend the bar mitzvah of my nephew, Sholom Lipsker, whose parents do remarkable work there.
I got to the airport, and the 808 was delayed, and no, it would not be getting into San Francisco until well after 10:30. After all the other passengers had finished their business with the agent she put me on a Delta flight, 6 o’clock Sunday morning, which would bring me directly into Philadelphia and my family would meet me there, and because I was the only one who wasn’t mean to her, the agent gave me a 250 dollar voucher.
This was not planned. I was going to spend the plane ride preparing my pan to bring to the Ohel. I was going to spend a few hours at the Ohel just days before Chof Beis Shvat. I was going to treat my daughters to some shopping, but…
The next morning I got on the flight and an off duty pilot was in my seat: 1B. The stewardess asked me if I would mind sitting across the aisle in 1C the identical mirror seat across the aisle. I agreed, and got to talking with the man next to me. An Afrikaner, he lived some fifty miles outside of Rancho Mirage, in a very secluded area, on four acre home sites which don’t even have mail delivery.
Two weeks ago, he was speaking to his 89-year-old mother and told her he’d be coming in February for his father’s birthday. Yesterday he got a call that she died, and was on route to Port Elizabeth for her funeral.
“You are a rabbi, yes?” he asked. “Is it OK to ask you a question which will show my ignorance and perhaps stretch the appropriate limits of curiosity?”
I gave him the go ahead and he asked, “Does your tradition believe in angels?”
I answered, he listened patiently, and then he said, “I’ll tell you why I’m asking. I was skyping the other day with my friend who is a professor in northern California and profoundly deaf. I heard a knock on my door – and I never have a knock on the door where I live – and I texted my friend I’d be back shortly. At the door were two deaf men looking for other deaf people to form a club. After they left I got the call from South Africa about my mother and this knock on the door had put things very much in context for me, and I felt these must have been angels.”
He didn’t seem the touchy-feely California type at all. We spoke of how the Baal Shem Tov reiterated that nothing happens by chance and we must be sensitive to listening for life’s messages. I told him that this coming Wednesday night we mark the passing of a woman of whom I had heard this story:
Once she was in the car which was forced by traffic into a detour and they found themselves on a narrow street behind a moving-truck. A woman was on the sidewalk crying miserably. The Rebbetzin asked the driver to find out what was happening. He returned with the news that this woman was being evicted for not paying the rent and she had nowhere to go. The Rebbetzin asked how much was owed in back rent, and when she was told, she wrote out a check for the full amount.
Her driver asked her later what that was all about. And the Rebbetzin answered: “When I was a girl my father told me that whenever your routine gets jolted, be sensitive to what’s going on, because opportunities are coming your way.”
So, I continued to my Afrikaner friend, my flight was canceled last night and I am now on a different airline flying to a different city
And, interjected the Afrikaner, your seat was taken by the pilot and you sat next to me!
I hadn’t thought of that. I was mid-sentence expressing how I have to be on the lookout now. But he had seen a conclusion to the mystery where I had only seen a growing one. He asked for my business card because he needed to speak with me more.
So far, as of four days later, there is no dramatic end to this story, not even a dramatic twist to the story, but I left with the reminder that hashgacha protis is a constant and we so often never know if we are being effective or not.
But what about my plans that were ruined? I was supposed to go the Ohel, in preparation for 22 Shevat, and I had it all prepared!! I was looking forward! Sometimes it is our passive presence which is the most powerful and crucial, and sometimes we have to listen instead of talk.
The Rebbetzin referred to herself as the mother of Chasidim, I heard this myself from her doctor. Which I found startling, because from whatever little I know of the Rebbetzin, she was not given to hyperbole and she wasn’t given to platitudes. If she said it she meant it. And the truth is, that most Chasidim had never seen the Rebbetzin, never mind been introduced to her, never mind spoken to her, never mind gotten to know her. And those that did were few and far between.
But she called herself our mother. She was a strong presence, even if we didn’t know it, or perhaps, counter intuitively she was a strong presence because we didn’t know it. I have heard that when Zalman Jaffe initially came to the Rebbe he had yechidusin of an hour-and-a-half. After he began meeting with the Rebbetzin, the yechidus went down to under 30 minutes.
Her whole focus was the Rebbe, and the Rebbe’s whole focus was us. So, her whole focus was us, and we saw this somewhat in how after she passed away the Rebbe never really seemed the same. We had lost something fundamental. The Rebbe had lost something irreplaceable.
But still, she was never even seen.
Some thirty years ago I saw an article in the New York Times. About architecture, a man who is obsessed with finding buildings from before the Civil War and redoing them. He would dig through up to four layers of floor board until he got to the original flooring with which the building was constructed. He would peel through up to twenty layers of paint and wallpaper until he got to the original and then commission an exact replica of the pattern and texture used the first time on the building. He maintained that the quality of the architecture and the materials of these old buildings are superior to what we have now, that a lot has been lost and he feels he is obsessed with its retrieval. The highest compliment he ever gets is when a visitor says to him – “but YOU haven’t DONE anything.”
In another article I read about that same time, that I saw in one of those airplane magazines for the extremely bored traveler, was an article about Savile Row, the famed master tailors of London whose clients come from every continent and with whom they often have had relationships for several generations.
Their motto: if a customer gets a compliment on his suit, then we have failed. We are not here to make suits that look good. We are here to make people look good in suits.
So true quality is the negation of one’s presence, true leadership is when the leader’s identity is so unspoken it must be highlighted. The Zohar distinguishes this quality as malchus and Chassidus elaborates on the melech, the king – in contradistinction to what we recognize as a tyrant who imposes his will – the king illicits from the people an admiration of his qualities and integrity, and the people are drawn to him, as if saying that through what you will do for me I shall achieve greatness.
And malchus, continues Chassidus, is the one attribute which not only cannot be conveyed without the presence of the recipient but cannot exist without the recipient because with malchus the recipient is not really a receiver of something but the initiator. This is not something easy, it is excruciatingly difficult to so remove oneself from the equation, it takes boundless commitment.
And malchus is a feminine attribute. Not a womanly attribute, but a feminine attribute, and it applies to men too, for in every man is a woman and in every woman is a man. And in marriage, when we develop the mirror image of ourselves with this, we become whole. Tznius is associated with women, and appropriately so, for its relevance is magnified with the woman. But hatznaya leches, the so quintessential Jewish sensitivity that does not translate adequately into any language that I am familiar, is the unlikely crie du guerre of am hodoma la’levana, a people who share a reflective quality with the moon.
That the capacity of walking in tznius with Hashem, with our purpose in life, where nothing we do calls attention to ourselves at the expense of what we do. That our clothes don’t receive the compliments which should have gone to us, that what WE DO shouldn’t overshadow what needs to be done, and what others need to do.
And all of the people who did meet this by-definition unsung hero can attest: she never, ever turned the conversation towards herself, but always with the deftness of a surgeon, and the aplomb of a fin-de-si?cle- diplomat – and with the love a mother who thinks of her children more than herself – she turned the conversation towards whoever sat in front of her.
Whoever sat in front of her, whatever situation interrupted her plans got her magnanimous focus and her unforgettable smile. And now we must make that smile our own. We must give it to everyone around us. We must ensure that our suits don’t get the recognition and our efforts don’t receive the accolades.
When we focus on the person in front of us, when we open ourselves completely to the hashgacha protis happening around us and through us when we essentially becomes without bounds, then our brochos become boundless. When our full focus is on the person and business in front of us, then on the face of everyone we come in contact with, we will be zoche to see a reflection of the our Rebbetzin smile.