Says Who?

Ninety-five square meters (about 1,000 square feet) is not much, but here in Eretz Yisrael, it’s standard fare. Large families — with six, eight, 12 or even more children — somehow manage to make it work. And they’re happy, too. So the fact that my Yerushalmi neighbors are raising nine children in their tiny apartment doesn’t come as a surprise. But leave it to life (read: Hashem) to teach you something new every day.

Although these Yerushalmis no longer dwell in the holy city that their ancestors called home for generations, they have clearly brought their special values along with them.

Somewhat recently, my wife told me about how this Yerushalmi family has a teenage daughter who looks after a special-needs child almost every Shabbos. At the time, I didn’t really consider the implications of that statement. But this Erev Shabbos I saw my neighbor’s kids walking Yaakov* up the path that leads to the entrance of our building. Generally, Erev Shabbos is a time that finds me inside the home; so I guess that’s why I never witnessed this sight before. But this past Shabbos, family was visiting, and I galvanized some of the child residents of our building to help clean up the environs by offering them little candies. Parenthetically, the tactic worked amazingly! My wife — who seems to have a far better understanding of children than I do — told me that it’s not the candy, per se, but the fact that they are being afforded the opportunity to work hard and receive positive recognition and reward from an adult for their good deed. In any event, when I saw them escorting Yaakov — a very sweet looking boy with Down syndrome — to their home, that was when it really hit home.

It finally registered. Despite the fact that their home would be considered overcrowded by any North American yardstick (and, I assume, by many Israeli yardsticks as well), they accept another child for Shabbos to do this chessed for the boy and his family. Most children demand a lot of work; even under the best of circumstances. And a child with special needs often requires that much more of an investment of time, patience and energy. Honestly, I am not sure what to be more impressed by: the fact that my neighbors are happy to host a special-needs child for Shabbos in their already full home, or that they managed to raise a teenage(!) daughter with such remarkable caring and drive for chessed. It is clearly not only she who tends to the child, though. At one point, I saw my neighbor with some of his children and Yaakov, and the latter referred to the former as Abba. I asked my neighbor, almost incredulous, “He calls you Abba?” My neighbor just shrugged it off with a dismissive “Yeah.” As if to say, “Yeah, but what’s the big deal? So he calls me Abba …”

Now, here’s the thing. With these types of revelations — that is, about huge things that some Jews do — I usually have this internal “defense mechanism” that loudly broadcasts: “Wow, so beautiful! Such a wonderful, amazing chessed! But definitely not for me. I could never do that!” I imagine that I am not alone (or, at least, I’d like to think so; maybe that’s another “defense mechanism”…). And yet, I don’t know how comforting that should be.

Another interesting thing happened this Shabbos. During one of the meals, the matter of my neighbors’ amazing chessed arose in the course of a discussion. By the way — before I go on, I really should mention one more point: their hosting is not limited to kids with Down syndrome who are high functioning. They also take in children with severe disabilities, some of whom are in wheelchairs. Anyway, coming back, someone at the table suggested I write an article about this. After all, it is quite inspiring.

But there was another thing that came up in the course of that discussion: scorpions. That’s right, scorpions! And, believe it or not, the two stories have a lot to do with one another. At least, I think so. Let me explain, and you can decide for yourself.

One day, I was with my kids on a little walk in the mountains that are on the outskirts of Bet Shemesh. As part of the fun, I rolled over a few big stones about the size of two large watermelons. I had always heard about the warning to move stones and pieces of wood and the like with one’s foot and not with one’s hands. It’s a precaution against getting bitten or stung by snakes and scorpions, whose home just may be the object you are moving. Complying with that rule is a pretty ingrained habit for me, despite the fact that my personal experience never substantiated that concern. That is, until that little excursion. When I rolled over one of the double-watermelon-size stones, I was shocked to see a big, black scorpion right there! For the first split second, I was frozen. Completely taken by surprise, I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t decide if his claws or tail looked more menacing, although intellectually I knew about which one I ought to be more concerned. My frightful musings, though, did not last long. Within about one second, maybe two, the scorpion moved quickly, tail first, and thrust himself back under his uprooted home. Still shaken, I followed suit and quickly moved myself and my children along to a different area (although my intellect was pestering me that, for all I know, the whole mountain could be teeming with these critters).

OK, so what was this doing in my Shabbos table conversation, and what in the world does it have to do with my neighbors’ exemplary chessed? Good question.

The story of the scorpion was mentioned to bring out a point. “When I rolled over that huge stone,” I expounded to the party of one who was actually listening to me, “I exposed that scorpion to a whole new world of light and fresh air. He had been completely immersed in a world of dank, squalid darkness. And how did he react to the revelation that there is a great, beautiful world out there full of light and invigorating fresh air? He retreated into his world of constriction and darkness! The light frightened him. He couldn’t deal with it. So he went right back into his familiar surroundings, restrictive and oppressive though they may be.”

Sometimes, we human beings can act like that, can’t we? We are exposed to a brilliant light. Maybe it was a shiur we attended, an uplifting experience we were privy to, or perhaps something as simple as becoming aware of a neighbor’s superlative middah. Whole new vistas open up before our eyes. We suddenly come face to face with deeds, achievements and qualities that we may have previously assumed impossible or non-existent. And what do we do? How do we react? “Amazing! But that’s not for me; I could never do such a thing!” Of course, I only speak for myself. I am certain there are many people out there who don’t respond that way. But, maybe there are others who can relate to my knee-jerk, scorpion-like way of thinking.

Well, we really don’t want to be like scorpions, do we? When we are exposed to brand-new worlds of brilliant light and invigorating fresh air, do we want to just retreat back into our (relatively speaking) state of darkness and constriction? Of course not! As sentient, feeling beings possessed of the power of free will, we want to embrace the light and fresh air; not reject it!

Of course, the million-dollar question is: How do we do that? If we really do feel that certain levels of greatness, chessed or character refinement are completely beyond us — that it is just not at all realistic to attempt such things at this stage of the game — then what are we to do? Great question! And I confess: I don’t know the answer.

But, maybe we can suggest an answer. Probably not the answer, but an answer, a step in the right direction. We can start shifting our thought patterns. As surprising as this may sound, we don’t have to submit to our ingrained thought patterns. This idea can be deceptive in its simplicity, yet astounding in what it can achieve for us. When the thought “I could never do that!” pops into mind, tell yourself, “That’s not true! Says who I could never do it? Maybe one day I will do such a thing! Even if I don’t feel that it’s possible for me to do that at this stage of my life, people grow. The fact that I’ve witnessed it as being possible brings me one step closer to one day doing it myself!”

And it truly does.