When in Rome (Part II)

As ironic as flying to Austria via Rome and Munich right after Tishah B’Av was (see last week’s article, “When in Rome”), the experience took on a whole new angle for my friend on the way back. With a layover of just over an hour, it was supposed to be a seamless connection to the second flight. Or so it seemed. The first foreshadowing of a change in plans occurred when their stroller was missing upon disembarking in Rome. Despite my friend’s insistent requests, ground crew practically barked that they would find the stroller at their final destination — no ifs, ands or buts about it! But that was nothing compared to the next hit. Despite their baggage being checked through to their final destination in Munich, they were told that their FCO-to-TLV tickets would only be printed in Rome. No problem. When the Italian clerk printed them out, though, the tickets stated that boarding would be at 9:10 p.m. But their confirmed flight was at 2:45 p.m.! Having overbooked, the airline bumped them. Vociferous and vocal indignation at the injustice of bumping a family with small children was to no avail. Demanding a supervisor also accomplished nothing.

It was official. They were stranded in Rome — without a stroller for a rambunctious two-year-old or a morsel of kosher food — for seven hours.

After experiencing intense anger at the airline — which, on top of bumping them, wasted hours of their time with fruitless “negotiations” — two thoughts started vying for consideration. One: many people suffer yissurim: serious illness, desperation in shidduchim, extreme difficulties with children… this list could go on and on. In the grand scheme of things, then, a seven-hour layover is a small price to pay for kapparas avonos, isn’t it? They were reminded of the story of the Chassid who came to his Rebbe with a litany of sudden tzaros, and, when the Rebbe asked if he had recently resolved an ongoing annoyance, the Chassid recalled his crystal dishes. Frequently, he explained, a dish would fall and break. It was incredibly aggravating, so he just decided to get rid of them. “Go buy them back!” the Rebbe told him. “Those ongoing doses of angst were providing you with whatever atonement you needed.” Indeed, Chazal tell us (Arachin 16b) that even pulling two coins out of your pocket, when you wanted three, counts as yissurim. So, when we get stuck with life’s inevitable irritations, it’s worthwhile to take it in stride. For all we know, this may be Hashem’s way of sparing us from something much worse.

The next thought was the idea made famous by the Baal Shem Tov: Wherever you find yourself is exactly where you’re meant to be. Or, as Chazal put it (Sukkah 53a): “A man’s legs are his guarantors; wherever he is meant to be, they bring him there.” What exactly they were meant to accomplish there, they weren’t sure; but if Hashem saw fit to keep them in Rome for the day, there must be some reason. And when they somehow made their way to the Jewish Ghetto of Rome — yes, they were surprised to learn that it is still called such to this day — where there are some kosher establishments, they experienced an encounter that made them feel a whole lot better about the situation.

The taxi brought them right to the Ghetto, but the restaurant where they were planning to eat was closed. In the moment, it felt like a heap of salt on an open wound! As they made their way further into the Ghetto, though, they asked a passerby for directions. Seeing that this individual knew his way around the Jewish Ghetto, on a whim my friend decided to ask this man if he is Jewish. “Well, my family is half-half.” “Which half, may I ask, is the Jewish half?” “My mother’s side.” “Well, that means that you are Jewish!” “But I never followed anything about Judaism.” “That doesn’t matter. You are 100 percent Jewish! Tell me, have you ever visited Israel?” “Sure.” “Whereabouts?” “Tel Aviv, the Golan, Jerusalem.” “Do you think you may ever visit there again?” “Yes.” “Well, in that case, take my number. The next time you are in Israel, we would be delighted to host you for a Shabbos meal.” The young man — who had just learned that he is not a gentile but a bona fide Jew — was clearly flattered and indeed took down their number (and, no, they are not kiruv professionals).

There was more to their Rome experience, but that encounter was certainly the highlight. And the precision timing — with all the innumerable details that contributed thereto — was not lost on them. Why they had to be in Rome for the day, there really is no way to know. But one thing became crystal clear: Wherever you are, there is a reason for it. It is exactly where you are meant to be.