I t’s no secret that I enjoy the stimulus of travel and meeting new people, and generally feel myself hyperalert in unfamiliar settings. At the very least, every trip is a fecund source of new stories. 

The Shabbos before we embarked for a two-stop, nine-day trip to America, my wife and I spent Shabbos with various children in Ramat Beit Shemesh. Shalosh Seudos was at the home of my son Yechezkel, who earns his living repairing major home appliances. For some reason, he started speaking about one client who had made a deep impression on him.

From what he could see in the home, it did not seem that the family in question suffers from a surfeit of money, yet the home is suffused with happiness. As my son put it, many of us can talk the talk about being samei’ach b’chelko and mistapek bemu’at, but in this home, it’s not just talk — it can be felt palpably.

This is a home in which Rosh Chodesh is celebrated with hot chocolate and where bochurim from the yeshivah in which the father teaches often sleep over for days at a time — even though the apartment would be cozy enough just from the nine children in the family.

My son shared a story of a time he had been unable to answer a call from this family because he was already fully booked for the day, and sent another repairman instead. The latter not only charged an outrageous amount but failed to repair the washing machine successfully. When my son heard about it, he was outraged, and told his client that he would get the money back for him. But his client would not hear of it. “Whatever I’m supposed to have was already decreed on Rosh Hashanah,” he told my son, “and there’s no reason to worry about it.”

Now, what does all this have to do with our travel itinerary? Two days after we embarked on our trip, I received an e-mail from my son, in which he informed me that the man who had spent the last four months arranging every detail of our Shabbos in Boston is the father of his client.

I arrived in Boston past midnight (my wife had taken a one-day trip to visit her elderly father), and by the time I reached the baggage claim, the wife of the man I had been speaking to for months was there waiting for me. I did not arrive at my host’s home until close to 1:00 a.m.

My wife was scheduled to arrive by a red-eye flight from Sacramento at 6:00 a.m. the next morning, and the plan was for her to take a cab to the home where we would be staying.

Before 7:00 a.m., I was out in front of the house scanning the traffic for a cab, but didn’t spot even one. At some point, however, I saw the car that had transported me from the airport just a few hours earlier pulling up. Husband and wife were both inside. They had slept less than five hours and headed back to the airport to fetch my wife.

When the wife saw my slack-jawed look as they drove up, she started giggling at the trick they had played. I was immediately reminded of one of the early childhood memories of both Mike Tress and Rabbi Moshe Sherer, whose mothers were sisters. The sisters would go around collecting money for new mothers, and then slip an envelope filled with the fruits of their efforts under the door of the new mother. Then they would repair to the apartment of one or the other, where they would sit giggling over having successfully gotten away with a mitzvah b’seser.

The memory of that sheer joy of having performed a mitzvah undetected was one that both of the great leaders of Agudath Israel would often speak about in later years. And I witnessed the same joy in having “fooled” me, in the couple delivering my wife from the airport. The simchas chayim that made such an impression on my son in the home of his client is a direct inheritance from his parents, as my wife and I would discover in numerous ways over our four days in Boston.

 

OUR TRIP BEGAN IN CHICAGO, my hometown, and on the first night I found myself in the magnificent Torah center built by Rabbi Yehoshua Heschel Eichenstein, the Zidichover Rebbe of Chicago. I would venture that every member of the Chicago community has been deeply touched by some member of the Eichenstein family over the 100 years that they have been in Chicago.

In particular, nearly every baal teshuvah from the Chicago area has been uplifted in some way by the current Rebbe. I can still recall the first time I ever shook hands with him after a Shabbos minyan well over 30 years ago. I quickly realized that I had lost my hand and would not regain it any time soon, as the Rebbe held it and gently caressed it while engaging me in conversation.

That personal touch infuses everything he does. On another occasion, he invited me to a sheva brachos in Jerusalem celebrating the chasunah of his son to the daughter of the Boyaner Rebbe. The entire invitation was covered with a long personal message in the Rebbe’s own hand.

That son whose sheva berachos I attended, Rabbi Zalman Leib, now heads a large kollel in the shul, and has assumed many of the duties of his father, who is not well. And he shared with me and a friend a number of stories of the family’s century-long history in Chicago. One that particularly struck me concerned the current Rebbe’s father, Rabbi Avrohom Eichenstein.

The previous Rebbe was one of the last holdouts on the West Side of Chicago, as the formerly predominantly Jewish neighborhood deteriorated. Only when there were no longer enough Jews to sustain his shtibel did he finally consent to move further east.

One day, his youngest daughter, today Rebbetzin Rivkah Meiselman, approached her father and asked him why the beautiful light fixtures that had adorned the wall of their previous home were not to be found in their new abode. Her father explained that he left them behind for the purchaser of the house.

She was puzzled, as the fixtures were removable and could easily have been transferred from one home to the other. Noting her confusion, the Rebbe asked her, “Have you ever imagined what it must be like to move into a completely empty home? How forlorn it must feel? I didn’t want the purchaser to experience the feeling of entering into a desolate space, even briefly, so I left the light fixtures behind as a gift.”

That extraordinary degree of empathy for the feelings of our gentile neighbors has characterized the greatest among us from the time of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, who always greeted first every gentile whom he met in the marketplace (Berachos 17a), to Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, whose passing was lamented by a group of nuns whom he always greeted with a warm smile when he encountered them on his walks in Monsey.

Rav Mendel Kaplan once stopped his car and offered a ride to a large, non-Jewish woman whom he saw struggling against the elements on a snowy and windy winter day in Chicago. When she came out of the diner to which he’d brought her, Reb Mendel was waiting for her to take her home.

Most of us will not attain the acute sensitivity to the feelings of all those with whom we come into contact, no matter how tangentially, of the previous Zidichover Rebbe or his son, may he have a refuah sheleimah. But at least, we can emulate the insistence of the great Torah scholars throughout the generations on treating every human being with dignity. 

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 713. Yonoson Rosenblum may be contacted directly at rosenblum@mishpacha.com