A while ago, I wrote a column from the perspective of a beneficiary of small acts of kindness; I discussed their importance and explained how they strongly effect recipients (“Small things matter big time,” January 13, 2017). More recently, I wrote about true heroes — people like Natan Sharansky, John McCain, James Shaw Jr. of Waffle House fame, and the recipients of Medals of Honor — and I explored what their outer actions tell us about their inner character (“An illogical impulse,” May 25).
I’d like to focus here on what might be the third leg forming a complete triangle; what small acts of kindness tell us about the character of those who perform such acts.
I can do this best, I think, with a story. I knew and had a warm relationship with Rabbi Herschel Schacter, an illustrious rabbi of international fame who led institutions and organizations large and small, local and global, and whose acts of devotion to the Jewish people merited him not only a wall in Yad Vashem but a front-page New York Times obituary. And while his worldwide fame and glory are well deserved, when I think of him the first memory that comes to mind is not one of the many wonderful deeds filling the obituary. Rather I think of a regular Friday afternoon commute, which I was desperate to complete before the sun dipped below the horizon.
Although neither of us knew at the time that the other also was a passenger, we were, coincidentally, on the same express bus. But the bus was anything but express. Rather, it was one of those Friday afternoons that bedevil shomer Shabbat commuters every couple of years; no matter the route, everything is excruciatingly slow. There’s construction, an accident, or a stalled car; too many cars or too few lanes, or some reason unknown to man that slows traffic to a standstill.
Our bus driver, who clearly was experienced, tried every shortcut possible, but all to no avail. And as we crept and crawled and the seconds and minutes ticked by, the passengers began to get edgy; their need to get home, whether to begin Shabbat on time or just to start a weekend after a tough week, was palpable. And so whispered mumbles became louder grumbles, and glares of annoyance and then anger were directed at the innocent driver.
Finally, after an hour and a half of travel rather than the scheduled 30 minutes, we reached the first stop. Many passengers stomped off there and at later stops, making a show of their displeasure. But at one of the stops toward the end (I was getting off at the very last stop, so I had the dubious honor of experiencing every minute of this adventure), one passenger stopped and said in a voice that carried throughout the bus — a voice I recognized from having heard it many times in the past: “Driver, I know that we’re later than usual through no fault of yours and that this trip was very difficult not only for us but perhaps especially for you. I also know that you used all your skills, knowledge, and expertise and tried your hardest to get us home as fast as possible.
“So on behalf of all the passengers, I’d like to thank you for all your efforts and wish you a very good weekend.” And with that he departed the bus.
I’d heard a number of speeches by R. Schacter and I’d had many discussions with him. But none moved me as much as this simple thank you to someone he didn’t know and likely would never interact with again. It focused with laser sharp accuracy on a character of empathy, of thoughtfulness, of understanding, of care for the other, of loving kindness, of appreciation to someone who at that moment clearly needed just a bit of appreciation. It wasn’t meant as a moral lesson to congregants or a policy statement to communities. It simply was one human being sensing that another needed comfort, and providing it gently and lovingly.
It’s through such moments — moments of small kindnesses — that we can get a glimpse into the true character of a person; when he or she acts privately, not for show or for what others may think, but to do what their heart and soul tells them to do.
And one more story. When my two oldest daughters were in first grade and kindergarten and my wife had to spend 10 days in the hospital, I wasn’t completely overwhelmed. I knew where their clothing was and how to match tops and bottoms (and if I made a mistake one of them was sure to correct me); meals provided by friends overfilled our refrigerator and freezer (and, in any event, I knew my way around the kitchen at least for basic fare); we had so many Shabbat invitations I had difficulty in deciding which ones to accept; and friends and family picked the kids up from school and watched them until I finished work and was able to bring them home.
One of the few things for which I was solely responsible was our morning routine: get the kids up and dressed, do their hair, feed them breakfast, and wait with them for the school bus.
And so I did.
About 20 years later, after I moved to Teaneck, I was at a local l’chain where I bumped into my daughters’ first-grade teacher. I remembered with great fondness because she was an absolutely first-rate educator, who loved her students and respected their parents. We chatted a bit, and then she said, “Pretty funny about the hair, right?” When she saw my puzzled look, she asked, “You still don’t know?” When I assured her that I didn’t she explained with a chuckle that as soon as my daughters arrived at school during that 10-day period, she’d take both of them (though one was not yet her student) to the teachers room and redo their hair properly, so they wouldn’t be embarrassed in front of their friends. (And I thought I was doing so well. Hah!)
I was deeply moved by her insight into and generosity of spirit about her students’ non-educational needs. It was but one moment in two years of teaching my children, one private moment that again speaks to an inner character devoted to consideration of and love for others. (I also was impressed and quite pleased by my daughters’ desire to protect my feelings by continuing to keep this a secret for so many years.)
While the beneficiaries of and bystanders to such acts often notice them, my guess is that those who perform them would, if asked, be hard pressed to come up with examples of such an act of theirs. It’s simply part of what the lawyer in me would call their modus operandi, or the columnist in me calls their character. And character, as Thomas Paine wrote, “is what God and angels know of us.” Sometimes, though, small acts of kindness let the rest of us in on that secret.