File this one under: For a weekly columnist, especially one on tight pre-holiday deadlines, there are no really bad experiences, as long as no one is hurt — just grist for the mill.
Just before Tishah B'Av, I was driving to Hadassah Ein Kerem to pick up my mother, who had just spent three weeks in the hospital. Only one problem: The gas needle was precariously near empty. And that entailed a stop at a gas station at the end of the Kiryat Yovel neighborhood.
There was a woman at the first set of gas pumps who seemed to be preparing to leave. Unfortunately, before doing so, she decided to pull out her phone and call someone. And with one hand on her phone, and the phone to her ear, she lacked the dexterity to put on her seat belt. Putting down the phone for a moment did not seem to occur to her.
I was under time pressure from the thought of keeping my mother waiting, and decided to pull around the car at the second bank of gas pumps and see whether I could nudge the woman in front to put a move on it. Unfortunately, as I did so, I managed to barely clip the car in back. Depth perception, it appears, is not what it used to be at seventy.
As I got out to survey the damage and to assure the occupants of the car that I fully acknowledged my responsibility, one thought was uppermost on my mind: You will be speaking on Tishah B'Av about achdus (Jewish unity). Avoid an argument or any chillul Hashem at all costs.
Unfortunately, by that time it was too late to avoid any chillul Hashem. The justifiably irate wife of the older couple whose car I had scraped was in no mood for any jocularity on my part. Nor did she evince any interest in my need to pick up my mother. She wanted my identification, and she wanted it now.
First, the car registration. Well, I did manage to find 14 years of car registrations in the glove compartment. Just not this year's, even though I knew it existed and had been paid for, as one of my son's had taken the car for its annual test.
Okay, then. "Do you have makif?" she demanded to know.
To tell the truth, I wasn't quite sure what that was, though I expressed a degree of confidence that I did have it.
"So who's your insurance company?"
I was once pretty good at Twenty Questions and its more sophisticated variant Botticelli, but she had stumped me again. I had a feeling that my original insurance agency had been sold. A few minutes later, and after several calls to various children — whose names I did remember — I was able to extract a number for my insurance agent. Unhappily, however, the office had closed, and as it was Thursday, it would not reopen until Sunday morning.
Then came a question I thought I could handle: "Do you have a driver's license?"
Actually, I have two for some unknown reason. But neither turned up in my wallet, though the next day, when I was not being glowered at, one of them did reappear. The other I suddenly recalled had been impressed into service to underline my Gemara early in the morning, and probably left there. (The following morning, one of the members of my morning shiur handed it to me as I walked in.)
You can well imagine how I winced when I heard her on the phone telling her insurance agent, "I'm here in a gas station with a chareidi man who doesn't have any car registration, doesn't know whether he has makif [comprehensive coverage], can't find his driver's license, and forgot the name of his insurance company."
The way she said "chareidi man" hurt. The only relief came when they asked me whether I worked, and I was able to answer affirmatively that I was a journalist who had written for Maariv and the Jerusalem Post, and was now a weekly columnist with Mishpacha. Husband and wife did not seem unduly impressed. So I threw in that I was once a lawyer, but I sensed they were straining hard to withhold their guffaws.
Meanwhile, their insurance agent was telling the wife over the phone to get me to sign a confession of guilt and to agree to pay any amount, up to the value of my apartment, that might be needed to remove the scratches from her car. At the same time, my lawyer son-in-law was calling to tell me to sign nothing, confess nothing, and he had several of my sons call up to relay the same message.
To tell the truth, there was never any question of my not signing. I still entertained hopes of picking up my mother. (She was home by the time we finished.) More relevant, I'm a card-carrying member of the Gimpel the Fool club. I trust everyone, just as I had hoped that the couple would trust me — which she, at least, most certainly did not, or else they were just very makpid on kabdeihu v'chashdeihu.
Plus, I had heard the wife call her husband Yankel, and he had "bageled" me a couple of times with words of wisdom from his father, who served as a gabbai in his shul. How could I not have signed?
At the end of this nearly hour-long unhappy encounter, the husband, who seemed to have a bit more sympathy than his wife, asked me if I spoke Arabic. I confessed that I did not. So he translated an Arabic saying, "Haste is the devil's tool."
Now, at last, I was on familiar ground. In the Talmud Torah of Kelm, they cultivated a middah called zerizus b'menuchah based on the recognition that the primary zerizus — eagerness to do a mitzvah — is in one's head, not through rushing.
Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler grew to maturity in the Beis HaTalmud of Kelm. I read recently (perhaps in these pages) that he was once in Switzerland on vacation and scheduled to return to Israel and his duties as mashgiach in Ponevezh Yeshivah via Zurich. In those days, there were only a few flights a week from Zurich, and on the day that Rav Dessler was scheduled to fly, those accompanying him realized that they were running late for the flight and began to rush. Rav Dessler told them to stop. Better, he said, to spend an extra two days in Zurich than to do anything in a state of haste.
And that, I concluded, was the message Hashem was trying to deliver to me, with Yankel as his messenger: Never act without thinking first. If I can only incorporate that teaching into my life this Elul and beyond, it will be well worth the 1,000 shekels the adventure cost me.
I am an inveterate procrastinator. Longtime readers may remember me as the fellow who does not open his mail from one year to the next. But as my 70th birthday approached, there were two tasks that I had powerful incentive to attend to. The first was getting a doctor and an optometrist to attest that I was fit to continue driving so I could obtain a new license. And the second, to fill out a bunch of undecipherable (to me) financial forms so I could collect my government old-age pension.
Still, with my birthday only two days away, I had completed neither task. On the day set aside for the task, however, everything went smoothly. I was aided by the fact that my light rail pass had apparently expired, allowing me to justify taking a cab downtown. Within three hours, I had visited two government offices, and even had time to walk from downtown to the Central Bus Station to get my Rav Kav card renewed.
As I was completing my uncharacteristically productive morning, it occurred to me that all this could have been done two months earlier rather than being left hanging over my head like the Sword of Damocles.
That flash of recognition could be applied to every other aspect of my somewhat helter-skelter life, including Elul preparations. True, I won't be able write another column lamenting "Where Did Elul Go?" But then again, I won't have to.