Surrounded by Extraordinary Goodness
"Who is a rich man? One who is happy with his lot" (Pirkei Avos 4:1). The Mishnah in Avos is describing a very high madrega. Being happy with one's portion involves much more than passive acceptance of one's current circumstances. It requires actively rejoicing in what one has of both a material and spiritual nature and recognizing how one has been given the tools necessary for one's current mission. The process begins with taking the time to think about all one's blessings while reciting Modeh Ani in the morning and again at night before going to sleep.
Part of the difficulty of doing so is that as frum Jews we take many things for granted and fail to realize how extraordinary they are. One example would be living in communities in which our neighbors care about us and are prepared to go to great lengths to help in difficult times. Just this week, I heard from a close family friend in America that her husband had taken a serious fall and would be incapacitated for many weeks. She reminded herself constantly of how much worse it could have been – his heart was not implicated, there were no head injuries, and everything broken should heal. But perhaps the greatest comfort was the overwhelming support and help of her neighbors, including the fellow next door who is ever ready to drop whatever he is doing to come over to help when needed.
There is so much pure goodness around us that we often fail to sufficiently appreciate or even register it. One morning this week, I noticed a neighbor davening with a considerable pile of coins in front of him. I happen to know that this neighbor's
parnassah situation is not good: He is a gardener, who has little work this year because of shmittah.
He is an extremely hard-working person. And I could have easily understood if he had chosen to ignore the regular schnorrers in our minyan, who drive up every morning in a car and pass systematically through the prayers shaking the coins in their hand without ever explaining the nature of their needs. And yet here he was giving like any other year. That is unsung heroism.
A couple of months ago, I found myself seated at a neighbor's sheva berachos next to the father of the chosson. Though I don't recall every meeting him before, our children had once met a few times on a shidduch. In any event, his ready smile and modest nature would have been sufficient to encourage conversation.
Towards the end of evening – perhaps in response to a question about the number of his children – he mentioned off-handedly that he and his wife had raised four non-biological children in their home over the years. Though he has a good job as a research scientist, I was reasonably confident that the willingness to raise children not their own had little to do with a surfeit of living space or money.
What struck me most was how matter-of-fact he was about what he and his wife had done. He assured me repeatedly that they and their children had benefitted far more from their chesed than those who came to live with them.
The more I thought about what he and his wife had done, the more fascinated I was, and so I subsequently called to get the full story. Again, my erstwhile conversation partner insisted that there was nothing remarkable about what his family had done. After his father's early death, his mother -- who had been a regal presence at the sheva berachos – supported her three children by taking in lodgers and students. At one point, the Sassoon family asked her to take in an emotionally disturbed boy. When he arrived, he refused to speak, hid constantly under the table, and ate paper. He stayed five years with the family, and is today a highly successful businessman. So the idea of taking in strangers was not something knew to Mr. M.
The first child that Mr. M. and his wife took in was the son of a distant relative who was not capable of raising her children. They felt that they could help a ten-year-old boy, who had already experienced too much trauma in his life, by providing a "natural family environment." And they did. He remained with the family for seven years, until he left for yeshiva. When he was married in America, they flew there for the wedding, and speak every Yom Tov.
Their second "foster child" came to the M.s by seeming serendipity. Mr. M. arrived back in Israel from a business trip on Erev Shabbos. In the multi-passenger cab from the airport to Jerusalem, he overheard the girl in the front-seat asking the driver with rising alarm when Shabbos started. She had lost the address to which she was supposed to go and could not communicate with the driver who spoke only Hebrew. Mr. M. offered her to join his family for Shabbos, which invitation she gladly accepted.
Only when they got out of the car, did he notice that she was of biracial parentage and only 15 years old. Somehow she had decided, while living in Delaware, that she wanted to be Jewish, and she had come to Israel to learn Hebrew. Unfortunately, she was signed up for an ulpan under Reform auspices, but knowing little of Judaism, she could not be dissuaded from going. While she was doing her Hebrew course, she spent every Shabbos and Yom Tov with the M.s. She eventually returned to America for a proper Orthodox conversion, with the M.s maintaining contact with her spiritual mentors there.
After her conversion, she returned to Israel and lived with the M.s for several years before marrying. Today she lives in one of the most established Torah communities in America, and is the mother of five children.
Just when the M.s had almost married off their last child, they found themselves raising two sisters, age ten and twelve. Their mother had passed away and their father's business requires him to be abroad almost two-thirds of the time. For a year after their mother's petirah, an older sister, with a great deal of assistance from kind neighbors, was their principal caretaker, but when she went away to seminary they had no place to live with adult supervision.
Meanwhile, the M.s had heard about the two sisters from their daughter who teaches in their school, and they decided that they could provide the normal home the girls need. In the process, their home also became a gathering place for the girls' siblings when they are in Jerusalem and for their father on leil Shabbos when he is back in Israel from his business travels.
Last, Mr. M. told me that as soon as their son got married and moved out of the house, they agreed to take in the nineteen-year-old friend of one of their daughters, who needs a more stable home environment.
I'm sharing the M.s story – related by them without the slightest sense of having done anything at all noteworthy, but with sincere gratitude to have been able to help enrich the lives of a very disparate group of young people -- not because it is unique. I imagine that most readers have neighbors or friends who have done equally extraordinary acts of chesed.
That's just the point. We live surrounded by so many remarkable Jews that amazing chesed has become commonplace. It should not, however, be taken for granted, but rather appreciated as one more reason to thank HaKadosh Baruch Hu for having brought us into the world as Jews.
Progress Towards What?
Sometimes a single comment serves to reveal an entire empty mental landscape. Last week, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier excitedly remarked that more progress has been witnessed in negotiations with Iran in the last year than in the preceding ten years.
Steinmeier did not define "progress," but presumably he meant towards a signed agreement. Signed agreements, however, do not of themselves represent progress to any worthy goal. If they did, Munich, the handshake on the White House lawn (Oslo), and a series of nuclear agreements with North Korea would be viewed today as successes rather than as disasters.
The "progress" in the last year of negotiations with Iran is the result only of the capitulation of the West in the face of Iranian resolve. Ten years ago, it would also have been possible to achieve an agreement if the West had agreed to allow Iran to enrich uranium, retain all its nuclear sites, continue research on nuclear warheads, and produce as many ICBMs as necessary to carry those warheads.
The only difference is that then the Western goal was to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear threshold state. Today the goal is to achieve any sort of written agreement. And Iran has expertly exploited the obvious Western desperation for an agreement of any kind and on any terms.
Equally fatuous is the plea of defenders of current negotiations to give "public diplomacy a chance." As former Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith points out, there are all kinds of diplomacy. President Obama believes in "cooperative diplomacy" – if we treat Iran as a normal, trustworthy country, they will become one. Kamayim hapanim lapanim as a principle of international geopolitics.
Unfortunately, it will take more than sweet talk and shows of respect to transform an Iranian regime motivated by an implacable theological revulsion towards Western democracy. A regime that tortures and murders domestic opponents and acts as a rogue nation abroad cannot be trusted. As Olli Heinenen, former deputy-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, told the Wall Street Journal in 2013, "If there is no undeclared [Iranian] installation today . . ., it will be the first time in twenty years Iran does not have one."
Cooperative diplomacy has an unbroken bad record because the bad guys never pay a price for violating the agreements entered into: The "good guys," who were so desperate for the initial agreement, inevitably bend over backwards to deny violations or else minimize them to avoid being revealed as dupes, until it is too late.
What is needed instead, writes Feith, is "coercive diplomacy," based on a return to the strict sanctions regime, which brought Iran to the bargaining table in the first place, without any naïve assumptions about either Iran's capacity for reform or verisimilitude.