When a radio transmitter transmits sound waves, there is no way of knowing who will receive the signals. To pick up the radio signals, the recipient must have a radio and the radio must be tuned to a particular frequency.
We are all in the same situation as that radio transmitter. We are constantly sending messages – some verbal and some through our behavior. With respect to the messages conveyed by our behavior, we often have no idea as to who will pick up the messages. That depends on who is watching, and more importantly who has an eye to see. The whole world heard of Hashem’s miracles in Egypt and of the Splitting of the Sea, but only Yisroel really heard and took the message to heart.
Of those messages that we are transmitting perhaps the most important are those that convey what it means to be a Jew whose life is shaped by Torah. Every moment, we have the potential to make a Kiddush Hashem or the opposite. Heightening the awareness that we are always broadcasting deepens everything we do as a Jew.
A grade school teacher once asked a class of eight-year-olds what is a tzaddik. One answered that a tzaddik is someone who fasts every Monday and Thursday; another that a tzaddik is someone who learns all night. Finally, one little girl piped up and said, “My tatte says a tzaddik is someone who does what is right.”
That last definition encompasses a great deal of wisdom. For one thing, it implies that every moment there is always a right and wrong thing to do. Each moment presents us with an opportunity to go up or go down on the ruchnios ladder. But there is no standing still – ever. If we start to view life in this fashion, we become reflective human beings, and not just creatures of habit.
In a similar fashion, an awareness of the potential ramifications of everything we do makes us more alive, thinking beings. For that reason, I make something of a hobby of collecting stories that demonstrate the immense impact of seemingly innocuous actions.
Recently, I received a Short Vort from Rabbi Yitzchok Eisenman of Passaic. His subject that particular morning was a woman whom he had accompanied on her journey from Leilani, a young woman from the Phillipines, to Leah. That journey began with a chance encounter as she left the public library of a north New Jersey city one day, just as three yeshiva students were walking by the library.
The behavior of one of the bochurim so piqued her curiosity that she was filled with the desire to understand why he had acted as he did. On the spot, she turned around and went back into the library to learn something about Judaism.
What had the yeshiva bochur done that made such an impression on Leilani? Did he greet her pleasantly? No, he ignored her, or, to be more precise, he quickly averted his eyes and turned the other direction as they passed one another. By the standards of the world, there was nothing out of the ordinary about Leilani’s dress. But by the Torah’s standards of tznius her attire fell short. And that is what caused the bochur to turn to the side.
His gesture did not pass unnoticed, precisely because it was so far from anything Leilani had ever experienced. As an attractive young woman, she had never before had someone make a deliberate effort to avoid looking at her.
That particular yeshiva bochur will have no idea, until he reaches Shomayim, of the spiritual tumult he set off with that one gesture. He will go through life never imagining that he, like Avraham Avinu, played a major role in bringing a neshama under the wings of the Shechinah.
No less important to remember, of course, is that the potential for doing good is inevitably linked with a corresponding potential for the opposite. Recently, I was speaking on this topic in the Bais Yaakov high school of Los Angeles. I told a story of how the lives of three brothers and two friends – today all chashuve bnei Torah – took a totally unexpected turn as a consequence of the impression made on one of them by a family coming out of the Los Angeles Kollel after Shabbos morning davening.
I pointed out that had the frum father been giving his young son a patch at the exact moment he passed in front of a local bistro instead of holding his hand and smiling, five Jews and all the subsequent generations that will come out of them would likely have been lost. When I had finished, I repaired to the office of the principal Rabbi Yoel Bursztyn, who shared with me a story from his days as a yungeman in Lakewood, which emphasized the point I had made.
He told me about a neighbor of his from those days – an elderly, non-religious Jew. On one occasion, Rabbi Burzstyn’s neighbor agreed to help make up a minyan in a shiva house. Afterwards, he told him the following story about his youth.
He had been born in Europe, and his mother passed away when he and his sister were very young. Eventually, the family immigrated to Philadelphia. They were extremely poor, so poor that the brother and sister had to walk miles each way to school because they did not have the nickel fare for the trolley.
One day, the young boy went to shul to recite Kaddish on his mother’s yahrtzeit. After davening, an old Jew came over to him, and asked him whether he had yahrtzeit. The boy nodded. “So where’s the herring and schnaps?” the old man asked. Having assured himself that none would be forthcoming, the old man told him, “This you call a yahrtzeit? Pheh.”
The boy was too humiliated to say anything, He rushed home and threw himself on his bed sobbing. His father passed by his son’s room, and saw how distraught he was. When the boy related what had happened, he added a vow, “Ta, I swear to you, I will never set foot in a shul again.” And he never did.
Can any of us begin to fathom the joy of discovering for the first time in Shomayim that we provided the impetus for one gentile’s journey to Yiddishkeit? Or, for that matter, the shame of learning that because of an unthinking, offhand remark of ours a Jew never again set foot in shul?
This article appeared in Mishpacha May 21, 2008