By Rabbi Sunny Schnitzer
Special to WJW
This week’s Torah portion is Va’etchanan: Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11.
Our Torah portion this week contains an admonition: “Take careful heed to yourselves, for you saw no form when Hashem spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire” [Devarim 4:15].
Some commentators say that this is an admonition to preserve one’s health. A very timely bit of advice as we continue to adapt to an ever-changing pandemic.
However, the Chasidic master the Chofetz Chaim used to teach that the text uses the root word nefesh, which refers to the soul. So what the text is really saying is take good care of your soul.
Now how does one take good care of the soul?
The people of Israel witnessed many miracles but did not appreciate them, and so they lived in ways that were harmful to their souls.
From this the Talmud teaches us in tractate Avodah Zarah that when you complain about something you have been given, it is an affront to your soul and to God. The current pandemic has brought, for some, a new appreciation of our blessings. For others, lockdowns inside comfortable homes lead to a lot of kvetching.
This lack of gratitude can lead to a constricted soul.
I want to share with you a true story.
When I finished my first year at seminary and was hired for my first student pulpit, I needed a robe. I was only working part time, supporting a family and things were tight. I couldn’t afford a robe.
Finally, on the Friday morning before Shabbat, I decided that I had to have the robe, and a bill would have to go unpaid that month so that I could get it. I looked in the Yellow Pages and called the first number I saw. A man answered the phone and I told him my needs and he said, “I’ve never supplied a rabbi or cantor before. I usually do choirs and pastors, but I think I might have something for you.”
“How much will it cost I asked?”
“Robes start around $100, but maybe I can give you a discount,” he replied.
After work, I met him at a nearby Dunkin Donuts. I tried on three different robes and chose the one that fit best. I asked how much he wanted for the robe. “Nothing,” he said. “I want to give you the robe.”
Flustered, I refused and began to leave.
“Wait,” he said. “I can’t take your money.”
Then he told me his story.
When he was attending college at Johns Hopkins, he was flat broke. He went to the bursar’s office to withdraw from school and, having done so, returned to his dorm room to pack for the long bus ride home.
The phone rang. It was the bursar’s office. They gave him a phone number to call — the Jewish Central Scholarship agency. When he called and gave his name, they told him that a large account had been opened for him by an anonymous donor who had overheard him in the bursar’s office. Every year for the remainder of his undergraduate career there was money in that account for his tuition, room and board.
So he said, “I am where I am today because of an anonymous Jewish man. And I am not even Jewish! I need to give you this robe.”
I accepted the robe, which I still have 28 years later, appreciative for the opportunity to have been a part of this man’s saga and for the gift.
A person who appreciates opportunities to express gratitude to others does not mind continually thanking them.
Whenever someone helps you in some way, ask yourself how you can show gratitude. Take pleasure in it. It’s good for the soul.
Rabbi Sunny Schnitzer leads Bethesda Jewish Congregation.