Sinai Synagogue, Sunday PM, September 29, 2019
Rabbi Michael Friedland
It is Rosh HaShanah Eve and I know that there is one question on everyone’s mind at this moment – how long are these services because I have a brisket waiting for me at home and I can almost taste it. But if you will indulge me a few minutes I would like to share a story because stories feed the soul too.
Once there was a young man who wished more than anything to be a scholar, but not just a scholar but a holy scholar. He had studied Torah but had yet to find a special rav to whom he could attach himself as a disciple.
One day he heard of a holy rabbi, known as Reb Haim HaTzadik and decided to go study under him. He went to the rabbi and Reb Haim agreed to take him on as a student. On the first day they studied together all morning. It was getting towards time for the midday meal and the rabbi said, Let us pause for lunch.
Rabbi Haim led the student to his home but on the way he saw a beggar. The rabbi offered the man some kopeks but then sat down next to him and conversed. He asked how the man was doing, about his family and shared information about his family. After about 15 minutes, the rabbi got up and continued on his way with the student in tow.
Passing a Gentile butcher, a woman came out clutching a bag of meat. The rabbi recognized her and began a conversation. The woman seemed sheepish at first but relaxed as the rabbi asked her how she and the family were doing, if he could be of any help, and wished her well.
The rabbi and student continued to walk when a third person shouted hello to the rabbi. “Oh no, thought the student. I am so hungry. Not another conversation”. The person who called to the rabbi was on crutches. The rabbi rushed across the street to say hello. The man, his legs obviously disfigured by accident or disease, was grateful that the rabbi stopped to speak. Again, another conversation for 15 minutes.
The rabbi continued on the way home which fortunately for the hungry student was a minute away.
As they ate the student turned to the rabbi and said, Thank you Reb Haim. I learned so much from you this morning just on the way home from the synagogue!”
“Really? What did you learn?”
“That we must be compassionate and caring to all. Even to those who are not as careful in their observance as they should, we must be loving and kind. We must have pity on those who are not as fortunate as we are, either physically or spiritually.”
The Rabbi looked at him sternly. “I am sorry but you learned nothing from me at all.”
The student was shocked at the reproach. “I don’t understand. You did not just give tzedakah to the beggar you spoke to him like a mentsch. You went out of your way to make the woman feel comfortable in your presence though she obviously had bought non Kosher meat. And you made sure to show kindness to the man on crutches.”
“You were not paying proper attention. You saw only the surface. Let me tell you a story,” said the holy Rabbi. “Something that happened to me a while ago.”
“At one point in my life, I decided that all the honor and attention I was receiving from everyone around me was interfering with my service of the Creator. I feared that the honor was creating an frightening amount of hubris. So I decided that I would spend several months in a place where no one would recognize me.
“I dressed in simple garments and began my self-imposed exile, wandering to a town far from the city. One night I was in a small inn run by an old Jew. He was a very kind and simple man, and we spoke for a while before I went to sleep. Early the next morning, after morning worship, I bade him farewell and was again on my way.
“What I didn’t know was that several of my pupils at that time had been searching for me, and several hours after I left the inn they appeared, hot on my trail. ‘Did you see Rabbi Haim HaTzadik?’ they asked him. ‘We have reason to believe that he was here.’
“‘Rabbi Haim HaTzadik?’ replied the bewildered old Jew. ‘What would the Holy Rabbi be doing in a place like mine? No . . . I’m sure that you are very mistaken!”
“But when the young men described me to him and explained about my exile and ‘disguise,’ the old Jew grabbed his head and cried: ‘Oy! It was the Reb Haim! He ran outside, jumped into his wagon and began urging his horse to go as fast as possible in the direction I had taken.
“After a short time he caught up to me, jumped from his carriage and fell at my feet, weeping: ‘Please forgive me, Rabbi Haim. Please forgive me. I didn’t know that it was you!’
“I made him stand up and brush himself off, and then said to him: ‘But my dear friend, you treated me very well, you were very kind and hospitable. Why are you so sorry? You have nothing to apologize for.’
“‘No, no, Rabbi,’ he replied. ‘If I would have known who you are, I would have served you completely differently!’
“Suddenly I realized that this man was teaching me a very important lesson in the service of God, and that the purpose of my exile had been fulfilled. I thanked and blessed him, and returned home.
“Since then, I have truly understood the meaning of the words in our holy Torah that the human person was created “b’tzelem Elokim”, the image of God. For if I had understood that more clearly I too would have served other humans in a completely different way. And that is why I behaved with the people we met on the street the way I did. Not out of pity or compassion but because that is how I must serve God, and they are in the Divine Image.”
And that is when the student chose to become a disciple of the Rabbi.
As we enter this new year we think about improving 2 kinds of relationships: Our relationship with God and our relationship with human beings. And what if the act that improves the relationship with one would also improve the relationship with the other?
May this year be a better year for us and all the world by locating the Divine in every human being and serving God in that way.