Yakov Saacks
Yakov Saacks

Listening to life’s messages – Don’t be obtuse


Judaism stresses that the word coincidence is just an 11-letter name for God. Nothing is random, chance or happenstance, and mostly everything that we encounter we must learn and grow from. Admittedly, this is a tall order, as some things are just so benign that it seems impractical to glean a lesson from them. Truth be told, people today are constantly moving so fast, so much so, that we barely have the mental capacity to understand obvious cues, let alone life’s lessons from a simple occurrence or path crossing. Sometimes, an important message slips through our fingertips because they are occupied searching through Instagram. If we could just slow things down, we would gain so much more out of life.


Case in point, I learned a life lesson in a grocery store this past week. I was placing my groceries onto the conveyor belt, and the cashier looked at my unmasked face and asked, “Any preference in what type of bag?” Normally, I bring my own but this time I forgot and so I needed to purchase new ones. I responded to her bag question with a shrug as if to say anything is ok. She started to scan my groceries when she stopped and asked me, “Do you celebrate Xmas?” She obviously knew what my response would be as I was wearing a kippah, looked Jewish, and hopefully somewhat rabbinical. I responded with a smile, “No, I do not.” She then said to me, “If you do not celebrate Xmas, then why would you want a Xmas grocery bag?” She then proceeded to procure a non-holiday bag for my groceries. I thanked her and thought nothing of it until I was driving back home.


After reflecting about this interaction with the well-meaning cashier, I was overcome with the following thoughts. The cashier read me way better than I can myself. She asked me out of sensitivity which bag I wanted and I was ambivalent. She was the one who decided that it was not becoming of me as a Rabbi to walk out with a Xmas bag. So much so, that she left her register to get me another more befitting one. She also understood that whether I care or not, or think it is a big deal or not, that I do not live in a vacuum, and I represent something bigger than myself.

The cashier also had more pride than I did. I have no idea what faith she was. What I do know is that she had her sense of right and wrong, while I was simply oblivious and blew any which way the wind did. Don’t get me wrong, I do not believe a grocery bag is a big deal, and I do not believe that a bag defines one’s faith. However, once asked I should have responded that I will have a non-holiday bag and not simply shrug my shoulders, which is a sign of apathy. This meant a lot to her that I have pride in who I am and what I represent and I was too focused on something else to realize. She wanted me to have a strong sense of Jewish pride, while I was more interested in the sushi I just purchased.


Let me tell you what Jewish pride is. The following story happened with a classmate of mine who is the Chabad Rabbi in Ft. Lauderdale. President George W. Bush was running for reelection and he was stomping the campaign trail which led him to Florida. The President’s staff contacted the Rabbi and arranged for the President to speak at the Synagogue on a Friday night. The Rabbi was tickled pink that his community was the chosen one. He made it clear that while it is the greatest honor to have the President of the United States speak, as it is Shabbat, there can be no microphone or press, which is consistent with traditional Jewish law to respect the holy Sabbath. The campaign staff agreed and it was all set.

A few weeks later they called the Rabbi again and said that while there will be no microphone or press, can there be one still photographer who works for the White House present? They assured the Rabbi that the photographer will not be obtrusive. The Rabbi did not allow it for the same reason, to respect the sanctity of the Shabbat. They persisted to ask him to allow just one single solitary picture so that they could place it in the South Florida papers. Once again, the Rabbi declined.

The staff then told the Rabbi that if he did not allow the one picture, then they would have to go elsewhere. The Rabbi did not hesitate and he said that this is not his call but rather a call from a higher authority. The bottom line was that President Bush did not come to the Chabad House and went elsewhere instead.

To me, this is a story of Jewish pride. As hard as it was to decline the leader of the free world’s wishes, he felt that the leader of the free and unfree universe comes first, and that despite a huge disappointment, it was the right thing to do. Let the President know that as great as he is, he still plays second fiddle to the Torah.


The bottom line is that we need to be sensitive to our surroundings. When something transpires, do not simply dismiss it as trivial. Pause for a moment and ask yourself, what can I gain from this experience. There is a quote attributed to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Schneersohn that goes something like this — when two people cross paths, the end result is that it should benefit a third person.

I am thankful to the cashier. I learned a life lesson and I am grateful.

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About the Author
Rabbi Yakov Saacks is the founder and director of The Chai Center, Dix Hills, NY. The Chai Center has been nicknamed by some as New York's most Unorthodox Orthodox Center.