by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
I had the occasion last week to address a gathering aimed at raising funds to pay for the legal defense team of Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin, as they seek to right a wrong and regain his freedom.
Let me share with you a story I retold.
It was following a Yerushalayim hafganah (protest rally) that a religious chaplain went to the office of a local police chief to seek his intervention on behalf of some people who were arrested at the rally and were being held in prison.
As the chaplain entered the office to meet with the obviously secular chief, he saw behind him, on the credenza, a framed photo of a religious family. As he stood there looking at the crusty policeman and the picture behind him, his curiosity was aroused and he asked who the people in the picture are and why their picture is displayed in his office.
“Sit down,” the chief said, “and let me tell you the story.
“It was many years ago, when I was still a rookie cop on the beat. It was a very hot week and I was overworked and bone tired. I was looking forward to having a couple of days off. I needed the rest. I was tense, stressed, and hot.
“The chief called me in and said, ‘You’re not getting off tomorrow. Those crazy chareidim are calling for a massive demonstration and I need all hands on deck. All personal days have been cancelled.’
“I begged. I pleaded. I said, ‘Please, I can’t do it anymore. I need a break.’ The chief said, ‘No way. Everyone must come in to work tomorrow. No exceptions. There will be thousands of them out there demonstrating, and every officer must be on duty to ensure that there is no mayhem and that they don’t spill over past where we can corral them.’
“I was furious. I was fit to be tied. It was to be my day off. I was looking forward to that day all week. I couldn’t go on anymore. I so desperately needed the break I wasn’t getting.
“So when I woke up that morning and dressed for work, instead of sleeping late and taking it easy, I cursed the chareidim. I was so angry that I had to go to work. I was tense beyond description.
“I got to the station and into my riot gear. I was so hot. It was 100 degrees outside, and with all that gear, I was going to sweat and go nuts. As I grabbed my baton, I swung it around and swore that the first chareidi who steps out of line would have that baton hit him on his head.
“I got the location of the rally and saw them gathering. My blood was boiling, as was the rest of me. I was sweltering in the sun and the heat, cursing my fate for forcing me to be there instead of in my air conditioned home. I swung that baton around and said to myself over and over again that the first one of them to cross the police line will regret it. That baton will smash him in the face and all over his body. I’d let out my building frustrations on that poor guy and beat him without mercy.
“For a while, I was just standing there, drenched in sweat, dreaming about the one I would whack, but no one was crossing the line. Then I saw an old lady approaching. She was walking towards me very slowly and had something in her hand. I hoped she wouldn’t be the one to meet my baton, but I made myself a promise and had no intention of breaking my word to myself. If she would cross the line, I would whack her.
“She kept on coming and I called out to her to halt. I said, ‘Stop! Don’t come closer. Please, lady, stay where you are. If you come any closer, I will have to hit you with this stick.’ I swung the stick around to show her I meant business. She kept on coming, walking slowly towards me. She was about ten feet away. I called out to her again, ‘Giveret, hafsiki! Stop where you are! Turn around and go back. Al titkarvi. If you come any closer, I will beat you. There is zero tolerance today. I am warning you. Any closer to me and you will seriously regret it.’
“The woman kept on coming. She was right on top of me and I’d had it. I picked up my baton to strike her and I shouted, ‘I warned you repeatedly, I asked you to stop, to go back, but you wouldn’t listen, so here it goes.’
“The woman lifted her hand and for the first time began to speak. She spoke very softly, but I heard every word and will never forget what she said. She said to me, ‘You can do what you want to me, you have the uniform, you have protection, you have that stick, but before you do what you want with the stick, I have something for you. It’s hot, its 100 degrees out here, you are sweating, and you must be thirsty. I’m sure you can use a drink, so please take this bottle of water from me. Then you’re free to do what you want.’
“Well, that was the story. I didn’t beat her. I thanked her. I put my baton back into its holster. I drank the water.
“When I got home, I spoke to my six-year-old daughter. I said to her, ‘I want you to play with those religious kids down the street from where we live.’ I said that any group of people who can produce a woman like that can’t be all that bad. It was too late for me, but not for my daughter. One thing led to another. My daughter became friendly with those kids and eventually wanted to go to the same school as them. She did. You see that picture? That is my daughter with her family.”
This story is a great one, because it portrays the greatness of Am Yisroel. It imparts a lesson taught by a Yerushalmi bubbe who wouldn’t let an out-of-control policeman rob her of her humanity. Her care and concern for a fellow Jew gave her strength and courage. She believed in the innate goodness of all Jews, even a furious, secular Tziyoni brandishing a stick over her head.
You may say that she was naïve, foolhardy and misguided, but if you do, then you never met those beautiful Yerushalmi Yidden, who have made it through everything, from hunger and deprivation to the vagaries of people who don’t always appreciate them. Tucked into their own corner of the world, in the holiest of the holiest, they are the holiest of the holiest, with their pure and simple dedication to doing what is proper and correct, despite apparent cost and danger.
We, who live far from that corner of the world, have much to learn from them. It is not simplistic to say that we should look at everyone we meet today with warm eyes. If someone treats us harshly, we should realize that they may be having a bad day. Maybe they are hot, maybe they are thirsty, or maybe they want to be home in bed.
If a child is misbehaving, maybe he needs attention, maybe he’s hungry, or maybe he’s bored. Maybe the reason he misbehaves in school and at home is because he’s frustrated that he can’t read. If I would just reach out with a friendly hand, a cup of water, or a little love, I will let him know that I know and I care. If I would hint to him that I sympathize with his pain, I’d be able to get through that veneer of anger and reach his soul.
If a person treats me with anger and vilifies me in a way which I certainly don’t deserve, if I am the victim of irrational animosity, instead of fighting back and exacerbating the situation, I should display self-control and pity the person who is antagonizing me with his petulance and irascibility.
And it is not just people who antagonize us with whom we should deal with mercy and love. It is anyone we come in contact with. Any time we deal with people, we should remember that we are heirs to a golden chain of rachmonim, bayshonim and gomlei chassodim. We are a merciful and charitable people. We should never betray our heritage, as deserving as we think we are of exasperated indignation. We must think of how that Yerushalmi bubbe would respond.
Think of the times you were hot, sweaty, tired and irrational. Consider how you would have been impacted had you encountered a woman such as the one that rookie policeman did on that hot day when he didn’t want to be working. Think of how her singular act changed the life of his family.
Think of the good you can accomplish if you would treat people the way you want to be treated. That’s what Hillel Hazakein said being a Yid is all about. Let’s put it into practice.
Thanks to Rabbi Yechiel Spero, Yated columnist, master mechanech, best-selling author, orator and more, for sharing the story with me.
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