This past Sunday I was sitting on my couch when a text flashed across my screen with a message from Rabbi Chaim Alevsky, a friend and colleague on the Upper West Side. Two teachers from Chabad of the West Side, Shternie Bulua and Dorit Gafni, were stranded on the West Side highway, their car stalled in the middle of traffic. Was anyone in the area and available to help?
I must say, my initial reaction was: “How does one get stuck in 2020, in NYC where there are gas stations everywhere, without gas? Can you not check your gas meter? There’s even a flashing light that warns you when you’re running low!”
But within seconds I remembered that I had found myself in the exact same predicament just a few months ago: stuck without gas at Lexington and 92nd, despite the ample warning my car gave me!
We humans are so skilled at identifying faults in others, but more often than not, we are blind to our own. This was a powerful reminder for me to love others as we love ourselves. When I was in the same situation, I didn’t blame myself. I just filled up and went on with my day.
Once that registered, I decided to jump in and see if I could help. I wasn’t in the area, but I posted on our community WhatsApp group, and within seconds my dear friend Shay Zach offered to help. He was on the Upper West Side, heading downtown, and was happy to stop and assist. I put him in touch with Rabbi Alevsky, who put him in touch with the stranded women, and sure enough, he found them, gave them a ride to the gas station, and they were on their way.
I learned a couple of lessons from this story.
At first I wanted to ignore the message. I was happy to let someone else do the mitzvah. Helping takes time and effort and I was in my comfort zone. But that is a battle we face every moment of our lives. The good and evil inclinations are constantly at war. The evil inclination thinks only of itself; the good one wants to do the right thing, even when it’s difficult or time-consuming.
A mitzvah and a sin both have an “oy!” and an “ahhh!” component; the difference is in the timing. While doing the sin, it’s so pleasurable that you feel “ahhh,” but when you realize what you’ve done, you’re hit with the “oy!” When you do a mitzvah, on the other hand, it’s hard, and you first grapple with the “oy!” But when it’s done, you can enjoy the “ahhh!”—the good feeling that comes from knowing you did the right thing.
Going out of one’s way to help a stranger takes effort, but the reward is immense. Now, in my case, I hardly did a thing. It took minimal effort—just a phone call and a text. For Shay, it was about 30 minutes out of his day—a more significant contribution. And I can tell you that he definitely got a boost from the encounter. This pleasure that we experience when we help others is better than any Netflix show can make us feel … try it and see!
When I talked to Shay afterwards, he told me how thankful he is for life slowing down these last few months. Pre-Corona he would have ignored the message, sure that he didn’t have time to help. But with nowhere to rush back to, he was happy to step in. “I hope to take this lesson back to my life even when things ramp up again: Slow down and help others along the way.”
And when you help others, you won’t lose out, G-d promises. In this case, when Shay told the women he’s involved in packing and distributing packages to healthcare workers, they offered to come and help, so it’s a clear win-win all around.
Hope you have a wonderful Shabbat
Rabbi Uriel Vigler