One Step at a Time

Ain’t TeaneckShuls (TS) grand!

In the midst of a major decluttering project, we came across a new printer in an unopened box that we had received as a premium when we bought a computer a few years ago.

Since I recently bought myself a new double-sided laser printer as a retirement present because now I have to print out all my shul articles at home rather than at the office, we had no use for this newly found printer. I therefore offered it on TS and quickly had 40 requests, with the winner being a second-year law student whose printer had just gone kaput. (I still have a soft spot in my heart for law students.)

No big deal, you say. Who wouldn’t want a nice new computer-related freebie? Okay. Now about this story.

On Saturday night erev Sukkot (which was starting Sunday night), my two wonderful older daughters, who had built our sukkah in the rain on erev Rosh Hashanah, were just completing decorating it when they found a problem. One of our four sukkah light fixtures was broken. Unfortunately, Home Depot and Loews were already closed, and because of Bergen County’s blue laws they wouldn’t reopen until Monday. I quickly posted our problem on TS and asked for advice as to where to get a fixture or if anybody had one to lend us.

Almost immediately, responses began pouring in, continuing throughout the night, with names of stores and offers of fixtures. Some were laconic (“Home Depot, Paterson”), while others went on for paragraphs, with detailed directions and shortcuts, descriptions of appropriate sukkah light fixtures, and advice about tax reductions and sales. (My favorite was a four paragraph response with the last paragraph saying “What am I doing up at 4:30 am???” I answered, with a smiley face, that unfortunately I knew only too well from my wife the answer to that question.) By Sunday afternoon our sukkah was aglow with light from all four fixtures.

Still no big deal? Perhaps. But it’s a small deal, a modest helping hand, a minor kindness. Especially when there are last minute recipes to be cooked, trips to be made to food stores, appetizer stores, kosher markets, candy stores, bakeries, flower stores, and everything you could ever possibly need and much you don’t though you buy it anyway stores (read Amazing Savings or Costco), rooms to prepare and beds to make for visiting family and friends, sukkot to be finished (or, for some real procrastinators, bought, built, and decorated), arba minim to be examined and bought, houses to be put in Martha Stewart condition, and, for some (lucky?) ones, bags to be packed for an out-of-town Sukkot — 36 people taking time to write to help someone they didn’t know (and only a few of the respondents knew me personally) was a kindness certainly felt by the recipient. I know I did. Deeply.

These acts do not, of course, measure up to serious, heroic acts of kindness and courage. It’s not like my young friend Avi, who donated a kidney to someone he didn’t know with the comment to me, “She needed it and I didn’t. No big deal.” Really? I beg to differ.

Or my father, who, when active with the Vaad Hatzalah during WWII and questioned by an FBI agent about his activities in obtaining admittedly questionable affidavits from his clients in support of refuges desperately trying to save their lives, told the agent that he wouldn’t stop until they made him stop. (They never did.)

Or the heroics of my son-in-law Jason’s grandfather, William Tenenbaum z”l, who recently died at 94. While in a labor camp during the Shoah, he managed to get a truck to look for his family, and not finding them, proceeded to use the truck to rescue and save the lives of others. (Indeed, a woman whom he saved tracked “Angel Boy” down years later to thank him, and her daughter came from out-of-town to the Toronto funeral in tribute to him.) As Zayde Willy intriguingly wrote in his unpublished memoir: “And then I borrowed a truck.”

Talk about a six-word story.

But while we need such heroes both for their actions and for their inspiration to others, we also need small acts of kindness by those not presented with the opportunity to perform, or not capable of performing, the heroics and kindnesses of Avi or my father or Zayde Willy. And this is true of old and young alike.

A friend recently told me how hurt her then-90-year-old Holocaust survivor father was when his sweet, amiable question to two young obviously Jewish children at Dunkin’ Donuts about what yeshiva they went to was met with their mother’s sharp “You don’t have to answer that.” Thankfully, most Teaneckers responded to him warmly and kindly on his walks along Trafalgar Road.

I understand about not talking to strangers. But he was accompanied by his daughter and an aide, he had a walker, the children were accompanied by their mother, and it was in public. Nonetheless, the mother chose one lesson to teach her children, which diminished an older man. A little thought and some kindness could have resulted in a lesson about vehadarta pnei zaken (show deference to the elderly; Lev 19:32) and removed the heavy cloak of invisibility worn by too many older people. There is, as the saying goes, a fifth section to the (actual four-section) Code of Jewish Law called “Seichel” (common sense). And shouldn’t kindness be a natural part of that section?

I realize that this is at least the fourth time I am writing about kindness. One reason perhaps is that the world around me — the headlines I see daily in the New York Times, CNN, or Fox News and the depressing articles and more often frightening comments that greet me on my FaceBook feed — makes me think even more often of R. Shai Held’s astute observation which I’ve quoted before but which resonates with me even more strongly as the world grows darker: “If you are blessed with children, do they know, truly and unambiguously, that whether or not they are kind is what matters most to you?” (See “A Rainbow in Someone’s Cloud,” 11/2/16, for the full quote.)

Had only the mother in Dunkin’ Donuts asked herself that question.

And our world so desperately needs kindness. A world in which the leader of its most powerful country is the epitome of mean, nastily denigrates all who disagree with him, makes fun of the disabled, disrespects women, and mistreats the heads of friendly democracies while cuddling up to despots — such a world desperately needs kindness. A world in which a once-imprisoned Nobel peace laureate, who, having gained power, effectively supports ethnic cleansing and genocide — such a world desperately needs kindness. A world in which a husband and father of four is murdered by a terrorist for the crime of shopping while Zionist and a young man is murdered by a police officer for the crime of being home while black — such a world desperately needs kindness.

A world in which sincere young people who want to join in causes to better assist the poor and the powerless can be banned from such activities, or students can be harassed, shunned, and belittled, solely because they support Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people — such a world desperately needs kindness. A world in which a nominee for a lifetime position on the highest court of the land can display a blatantly injudicious temperament, angrily and righteously spew partisan tirades and threats, and weave conspiracy theories without apparent empathy or concern for those hurting — such a world desperately needs kindness.

A world in which parents and children are callously separated and a low priority is placed on reuniting them — such a world desperately needs kindness. And a world in which a writer for this paper questions whether doing good for others and engaging in positive social change is a valid Jewish theological value — such a world desperately needs kindness.

On Sukkot 1966, R. Norman Lamm poetically set a standard for us to emulate: We need to learn “how to lend a sympathetic ear, and a helping hand, and a heart that beats in the rhythm of sympathy with the poor, the embittered, the lonely, who aspire for a word of friendship, a gesture of comfort, a sign of compassion and commiseration.” Or as R. Lord Jonathan Sacks wrote 52 years later: “In Judaism there is also a prophetic voice. The key words for the prophet are tzedek u-mishpat, righteousness and justice, hessed ve-rahamim, kindness and compassion.”

And these two rabbinic scholars, thinkers, and leaders were preceded by decades when their mentor and ours, the Rav, wrote in “Ish ha-Halakah” (as translated by my brother Lawrence): Halakhic Man “publicly protests against the oppression of the helpless, the defrauding of the poor, the plight of the orphan…. He is the father of orphans, the judge of widows.”

I know I sometimes may be foolishly idealistic. But I’m not naïve. I don’t think small doses, or even large doses, of kindness will obliterate the serious challenges and problems we face, that they will eradicate the evil that permeates too much of our world. But, to paraphrase a great American, one small step can sometimes be transformed into a great leap. So let’s begin to act with kindness. One small step at a time.

About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is a long-time resident of Teaneck. His work has also appeared in various publications including Sh’ma magazine, The New York Jewish Week, The Baltimore Jewish Times, and, as letters to the editor, The New York Times.
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