Two words changed everything.
Life is funny. Sometimes the biggest impact on a person's life can come from a minor, inconsequential, almost offhand remark or occurrence that almost doesn't register at all.
And so it was on a Tuesday evening, a number of years ago, when I was leaving the synagogue, my eye caught a tiny message that was unceremoniously scrawled in pencil on a torn piece of loose leaf paper.
"Shmuel Greenbaum is sitting shiva at __. His wife was the only American killed in the Sbarro Pizza bomb explosion in Jerusalem."
"How sad," I thought, as I headed out the door, on my way to continue life.
On my right, walked my friend, Shimon. He took his keys out of his jacket pocket and headed for his car.
"Want a ride home?" he asked.
Two minutes later we were parked outside my house. I was about to leave when he turned to me.
"So, when would you like to go?"
"Where? Why, to the shiva, of course."
"The shiva? You mean the fellow who lost his wife?"
"I hadn't really thought of going. I don't know the guy. Do you?"
"So, why would you go?" I wondered.
"Why wouldn't I go," he answered, matter of factly.
Out of nowhere, a fundamental tenet of my behavior was flipped on its head and turned inside-out, by two profound little words, "Why not?"
I remember sitting in the car, looking at Shimon rather awkwardly. We both sat silently. A strange, unbalanced feeling had come over me. A simple, obvious, fundamental, long-lasting tenet of my behavior had just, out of nowhere, been flipped on its head and turned inside-out, by two profound little words, "Why not?"
It had never dawned on me that anyone could, would, or should make a shiva call to someone he didn't know. Isn't that an intrusion? An invasion? Or at least an inappropriate or voyeuristic trespass? And yet, with those two tiny words, Shimon was challenging a foregone conclusion of mine, which had seemingly been born without conscious thought or conception. I just automatically assumed that was the case.
I groped for an answer, wishing the flush on my face would simply vanish.
"Why not? Well...er...I dunno...I guess there's no real reason not to go. I mean...er...if you're going and you don't know him, then...as you say...why not?"
"How about nine tomorrow morning? I'll pick you up," he said.
"Sure. Nine o'clock. Great. Perfect. Let's do it. Fine. Okay," I mumbled as I fumbled for the door latch. "See you then. Thanks."
I remember feeling so embarrassed as I stumbled up the stairs to my home. What had been so instinctive to me - not even considering visiting the tragic mourner - was equally instinctive to Shimon, planning to visit him the very next morning.
Nine AM I arrived at the same time as Shimon. A short drive later, we sat parked in front of the home of the shiva. With such a build-up, I expected something spectacular or melodramatic to happen at any moment. It never came.
"Ready?" asked Shimon.
"Why not?" I replied, using my favorite new two words.
I leapt from the car and awkwardly led the way inside the house. Feeling curiously anxious, I feigned confidence as we both entered. I walked into the living room and saw him sitting on a low, pre-fabricated cardboard box – alone and distraught. My heart went out to him. He looked up with his sad face and saw me. Immediately, he spoke.
"Yaakov Salomon," he said, "so nice of you to come."
Stunned for a moment, I looked at him more directly and realized that I recognized his face. He had been a guest at my home some time back, but I had forgotten his name. I threw him a half-smile, feeling more ashamed than ever. I said nothing. Then he looked at Shimon.
"And who are you, may I ask?"
Oh, the irony of ironies. I, who had no intention of going, was immediately recognized and appreciated. Shimon, architect of the mitzvah, was a total stranger. It must have looked like I schlepped him along.
We both found our way to some folding chairs near the mourner. Conforming to tradition, we said nothing, waiting for Shmuel to begin conversation. (I have always thought that this custom displayed incredible sensitivity. Why should the visitor say anything? Does he have any idea of the emotional state of the mourner? Perhaps the mourner wants to speak of the deceased. Maybe that topic is too painful for the moment. Maybe he just wants to sit quietly. Clearly, the visitor should not dictate or initiate any discussion.)
Shmuel put us at ease immediately (perhaps sensing my discomfort). And as people entered the room he always asked them, "Who are you? Did you know my wife? Please come in."
He spoke openly about the tragedy and how much he loved Shoshana. They had traveled together to Israel for a six-week study trip from the United States.
Shoshana was having lunch at Sbarro's when a suicide bomber struck. Both she and the unborn baby, along with 15 others were killed.
Shmuel had to return early, while Shoshana - pregnant with their first child - decided to stay. A few days later, she was having lunch at Sbarro's when a suicide bomber struck. Both she and the unborn baby, along with 15 others were killed. 130 were injured.
We listened to his tragic tale and fought back the tears.
Shmuel's response to his wife's death, however, was not one of bitterness and rage. Instead, he somehow garnered the strength to channel his emotions in the service of the greater good. The mourning would come later. "As soon as she was killed, I said to myself, 'Here's a tremendous opportunity'...maybe there is something I can tell to the world and make it better," he recalled.
What evolved was an organization called Partners in Kindness. People report acts of kindness to him and he sends the stories out to a growing list of e-mail subscribers around the world - 25,000 at the last count - including readers in countries such as Kuwait and Iran.
The idea is simple - the stories inspire the recipients to be kind, too. They can involve money - a generous donation to a stranger in need - or be a simple act like cheering someone up. He said he aims to make the world kinder, one person at a time.
We must have stayed about 20 minutes or so. And I remember looking around the room and seeing all the visitors. There must have been about 18 people there. Incredibly, of all the well-wishers who had come to console and encourage this doleful widower that morning, I was the only person whom he knew! Everyone else, like Shimon, had come out of the goodness of his soul, just to demonstrate love and compassion for a fellow Jew in sorrow. They all understood something that I had totally missed.
That little "Why not" was digging deep into my soul.
BECOMING A TRUTH SEEKER
We all have preconceived notions and philosophies that often contain little truth or rationale. Like squatters, they creep into our psyches, find a comfortable corner, and soon take up permanent residence. Before long, they attach themselves to the fabric of who we are, and so, we rarely question how they got there in the first place.
Sometimes it's a negative opinion about someone who, in fact, we hardly know at all.
"I don't know - something about her just rubs me the wrong way."
"The way he walks... he just looks arrogant."
Sometimes it's just a sweeping generalization that we grew up with.
"All those Republicans don't care about the little guy."
"Real men don't cry."
"If that professor said it, it must be true."
"If you don't know what you're doing, stay off the dance floor."
Or, "Jewish History is just plain boring."
Don't presume that just because you have always thought something to be true, that it actually is.
None of these impressions is necessarily true at all, and yet, many of us just instinctively assume they are. The idea is to be sufficiently aware that spontaneous or visceral reactions need to be questioned and challenged... always. Don't presume that just because you have always thought something to be true, that it actually is. Thinking, reasonable people are constantly checking out their assumptions and running them through internal checkpoints.
- Why do I react this way?
- What is the basis of my response?
- Are there subjective factors or fears that are prejudicing my opinions?
- Might I be afraid of the truth?
The tragedy at Sbarro's will never be forgotten. And among the after-effects was an unassuming and uneventful shiva, attended by mostly strangers - just a bunch of very caring, loving, fellow-Jews. But this Jew had to be practically dragged there.
Yes, shiva calls can and often should be made to people you may not know, or know just a bit.
And sometimes the lessons you learn there are as profound as the kindness you extend.
I hope I learned mine.