Rabbi Levi Yochanan of Berdichev used to invite simple folk into his sukkah, those who had neither Torah learning nor any money.  This distressed some of his disciples, and they asked him, “Why does our Rabbi see fit to bring into his sukkah such boorish people?”  The righteous man answered: “After I reach 120 years of age and I go to the World in Which All is Good, where the righteous sit in a sukkah the size of a whale, I will come and ask if I may sit in that sukkah.  And if they do not give me permission but instead ask me who am I and what am I to dare ask to set foot in a place where the most righteous sit, I will answer them by saying, ‘I, too, invited into my sukkah simple folk.’ “ (from Yirah ve-Ahava, edited by Yoel Rappel).

I worked with Michael* on a project to promote regional cooperation.  Michael is today one of Israel’s new billionaires, but at the time he was a relative unknown who, in addition to international businesses, also initiated unique partnerships with neighboring countries.  One snowy winter night, he and I travelled from Manhattan with an international delegation to a working meeting at Cornell University in New York State.  The minibus journey from Manhattan to Ithaca would normally take about five hours, but that night it took closer to eight, because of the snow that made driving difficult and turned the trip into a danger to life and limb.

When we finally reached the hotel near Cornell, late at night, we were drained and exhausted.  We ate a quick dinner, and in our exhaustion thought only of getting some sleep in anticipation of an intense day of work the next day.  Suddenly Michael asked me urgently, “Where’s our minibus driver?  Why didn’t he eat with us?”  I looked around but I could not see the driver anywhere.  We set out to look for him.  Eventually we found him getting ready to bed down in a sleeping bag on the floor of his cold minibus.  Michael asked him why he was not sleeping in the hotel like the rest of us.  “After all, I paid the travel agency for a room for you!” said Michael, surprised.  It turned out that although the driver had received expenses for accommodation, he preferred to save the money by sleeping in his vehicle despite the freezing cold weather.

Michael refused to leave the tired and embarrassed driver on the floor of the minibus.  He insisted on taking his bag into a hotel room, and he made sure that the payment for the room would be in addition to the expenses that had already been paid to the driver.

Not long ago, I had breakfast in Manhattan with Howard*, in the private dining room of the company where he has held a senior position for many years.  This is one of the largest companies in its field, employing tens of thousands of people around the world.  We were the only diners in the tastefully
decorated private dining room, with a smartly dressed waiter at our service.

When the omelets were brought to the table, I stepped away for a moment to wash my hands.  When I returned, I found Howard addressing the waiter in evident agitation.  I started to eat as I listened to their conversation.  It turned out that the waiter had recently suffered harassment by the holding company that employed him.  The relationship had taken a turn for the worse when new owners took over.  As the waiter explained to Howard, the situation had become so bad that he felt he would soon have no choice but to quit his job.  Howard refused to let the matter drop.  “Give me the exact details and tell me how I can help you.  You’ve been an excellent waiter for me for several years.  You were always dedicated and professional.  Now it’s my turn to help you!” Howard insisted.

Howard, one of the seasoned and most respected leaders of the Jewish community in the US, a man of great means with much influence, did not touch his meal or relax until the waiter had given him all the details he needed to be able to look into the matter and try to help.

More than the humanity, the compassion, the pleasure of helping another and the beauty of simply being a mensch, life is a wheel.  Sometimes we are up and sometimes we are down.  This is not a new idea—after all, Aesop wrote about it over 2,000 years ago in his fable of the Lion and the Mouse: https://www.storyarts.org/library/aesops/stories/lion.html.

*Not his real name

Sagi Melamed lives with his family in the community of Hoshaya in the Galilee.  He serves as Vice President of External Affairs at the Max Stern Yezreel Valley College, and as Chief Instructor of the Hoshaya Karate Club.  Sagi received his Masters degree from Harvard University in Middle Eastern Studies with a specialty in Conflict Resolution.  His book “Son of My Land was published in 2013.  Sagi can be contacted at: melamed.sagi@gmail.com.