One fine Erev Shabbat Reb. Simcha was strolling happily through the high street of his town. It was actually his custom to do this each week. He loved the special atmosphere created by the hustle and bustle of last minute Shabbat preparations. There would be people buying flowers, food, collecting their suits and dresses from cleaners, and delivering gifts to their Shabbat hosts. There was an excitement in the air that could be felt at no other time, as everyone rushed about with one aim – to be completely ready in every way before further preparation would no longer be permitted.
Reb. Simcha, already dressed in his Shabbat finery, walked calmly yet deliberately on as shop after shop closed its doors, and the gentle, delicious odour of chicken soup and chulent began to waft through the neighbourhood. Reb. Simcha was well known, and well loved. He was a very wealthy man who gave a great deal of tzedakah to needy individuals as well as to deserving institutions throughout the area – shuls, yeshivahs, schools and hospitals.
As he walked, Reb. Simcha exchanged greetings with people, “Shabbat Shalom, my friend!” he would say, “and do drop by for kiddush – don’t forget!”
It was as he passed the butcher’s shop on his way home that Reb. Simcha would usually begin to speed up, for by this time there would be few people on the street, and Shabbat would be drawing ever closer.
However, this particular Erev Shabbat Reb. Simcha stopped walking suddenly just a few steps past the butcher’s. There was something very sad about the man he had noticed standing in front of the shop window and Reb. Simcha turned around to look again.
The man appeared to be gazing at the meat in the shop window. Reb. Simcha walked towards him and realised there were tears rolling down his cheeks. Upon enquiring as to the cause of his distress Reb. Simcha received a tearful account of the man’s troubles.
Introducing himself as Shlomo the Tailor he explained how in only a few months he had lost so much business that it had become difficult to feed and clothe his family. He had been ill for a short time and during that period his clients had had to take their garments to another tailor. Unfortunately, when Reb. Shlomo returned to good health his business did not and life began to be a real struggle.
“Now,” he explained, “I face a problem I have been dreading. I have always bought my wife a chicken on Erev Shabbat. I should have been home hours ago and our soup would normally be gently simmering by now. However, this week has been so bad there is not enough money in my pocket for even the smallest chicken. I have been waiting outside the butcher’s in the hope that someone might bring to me an urgent piece of stitching which would earn me enough money to cover at least one Shabbat meal; but the shop is now closed, and I don’t know how I can go home and face my dear wife empty-handed.”
At these words Reb. Simcha, with a caring, delicate smile, the inner ends of his eyebrows pushing his forehead up into shallow furrows and his right hand raised in front of his chest, stopped Reb. Shlomo and informed him,
“You and your family will be our guests this week. We shall be honoured to welcome you and anyone you wish to bring. Please rush home to tell this to your wife, and I look forward to seeing you in shul later. Shabbat Shalom, Reb. Shlomo!”
Reb. Shlomo’s wife was as excited as he to hear of this good fortune, repeating “Hashem has indeed helped us” several times, with Reb. Shlomo responding “Amen to that!
Reb Shlomo, his wife, and their three children sat quietly at Reb. Simcha’s table that evening. They were overwhelmed by the variety of delicious foods, warm, friendly company and inspiring ‘divrei Torah’. There were other guests, but Reb. Shlomo and his family had been particularly honoured by being seated at the head of the table, each side of Reb. Simcha. The meal lasted several hours. Between each course the whole gathering sang zemirot, and different guests spontaneously offered words of Torah, usually in some connection to that week’s sedra which happened to be Noach.
After ‘Birkat Hamazon’ all of the guests thanked Reb. Simcha and his wife for a most enjoyable evening before departing for their own homes. Reb. Shlomo and his family gave special, heart-felt thanks to their hosts, then took their leave. The walk home seemed very much shorter than it actually was, for as they walked they talked excitedly about their experience, hardly noticing the moonlit buildings that they passed and not even flinching at the frosty night air.
Upon opening the door to his meagre workshop on Sunday morning, ready for another long week of waiting at his sewing machine for even the smallest jobs to come his way, Reb. Shlomo found a note waiting for him. It was signed by Reb. Simcha, who requested that Reb. Shlomo visit him as soon as possible. Reb. Shlomo was both surprised and delighted. He was surprised that Reb. Simcha should have any reason at all to meet with our poor tailor again but delighted to have another opportunity to encounter his new, kindly, well-to-do friend.
“I came as soon as I found your note,” began Reb. Shlomo as he was welcomed at the large, white front door by a familiar smile.
“Wonderful,” came Reb. Simcha’s response, “Come in, come in. Here, let me take your coat; please, come with me into the sitting room.”
“Do you prefer tea or coffee?” Reb. Simcha’s wife asked her guest but her husband quickly answered,
“Our friend likes coffee with one spoonful of sugar! I remember that from Leil Shabbat!”
“That’s right,” affirmed Reb. Shlomo, “but please tell me why you wished to see me.”
The two men sat down together to talk on a large, sumptuous couch. In a few, short sentences, Reb. Simcha invited Reb. Shlomo and his family to take up residence in a large cottage by the stream at the far end of Reb. Simcha’s grounds. This would be a completely new home for Reb. Shlomo and his family. Furthermore Reb. Simcha added that he would also be pleased to make Reb. Shlomo’s workshop a little more welcoming and better equipped which, he foresaw, would greatly improve business. In addition, Reb. Simcha said that he would send all of his friends to Reb. Shlomo which would ensure that Reb. Shlomo’s family would never be short of money again!
For a moment, our poor tailor was somewhat bemused; why was Reb. Simcha offering him so much? His friday night invitation had been very kind but now he was offering far more than his visitor had ever dreamed of and for what reason? Reb. Simcha noticed the disbelief on Reb. Shlomos’s face, and reassured him that there was nothing to worry about.
“I simply want to extend a helping hand to a family that has less than mine. If I can afford to do a mitzva then I try to do it. Will you help me to do a mitzva by accepting my offer?”
Reb. Shlomo was still quite speechless but soon began to slowly nod his head, allowing a small smile to lift his cheeks. The two men shook hands and Reb. Shlomo rushed home to tell his wife the good news.
Reb. Shlomo’s wife and children were so excited and pleased for themselves they hardly wondered at all at Reb. Simcha’s reasons for making them such a wonderful offer. In a matter of hours preparations were already underway for their move into Reb. Simcha’s cottage, which would soon be theirs!
Only one month later Reb. Shlomo, his wife, their children and all their belongings were comfortably installed in their new home and Reb. Shlomo’s business was booming. It was at this point that everything was soon going to become crystal clear.
Reb Shlomo’s wife had begun to wonder about their new circumstances. Why had all of this happened to her family? Why had Reb. Simcha been so good to them? When her curiosity was almost unbearable she persuaded her husband that they should confront their benefactor and put their questions to him face to face.
The large, white front door opened and the couple were invited in. However, they remained on the doorstep feeling for the first time a little uncomfortable in Reb. Simcha’s presence.
“What on earth is troubling you both? How can I help you?”
Reb. Simcha also felt uneasy, for his visitors, whom he now considered good friends, were acting strangely distant.
“We would simply like you to explain to us…”
Reb. Shlomo’s wife paused, suddenly realising how immodest, even rude, she must have sounded; her husband took over:
“We would simply request that you explain exactly why you have made such a great effort to help us. Our lives have changed for the better beyond out wildest dreams, and we have only you to thank but now we realise you have acted beyond the normal limits of chessed. Please just let us know why?”
Reb. Simcha sighed, stroked his beard, then began a most startling explanation;
“I know who you are, Reb. Shlomo.” “What do you mean?” Reb Shlomo almost snapped in response to Reb. Simcha’s peculiar words.
Reb. Simcha continued:
“Allow me to tell you a story. One fine Erev Shabbat a well-to-do and respected member of his community was strolling through his local streets enjoying the excited atmosphere of last minute preparations. As he walked past the butcher’s shop he noticed a poor man gazing sadly into the window…”
Reb. Shlomo and his wife glanced at each other with suspicion on their faces, both realising that this story sounded remarkably similar to their own! Reb. Simcha did not pause and, the couple noticed, as he continued there was a tear in his eye.
“The wealthy man inquired as to the reason for the poor man’s distress. The poor man told him that though Shabbat was approaching quickly he had not been able to afford food for Shabbat meals and did not know how he was going to face his wife with such news…”
“We know this story!” interrupted Reb. Shlomo,
“This is no explanation at all! It is simply the story of how we met each other!”
“Yes,” Reb. Simcha agreed, “but my story is not the same story you think it to be! When I said I know who you are, I meant that I am quite aware that you have not always been a poor tailor. Do you remember some years ago when you were still a wealthy businessman? One Erev Shabbat you met a poor man outside the butcher’s shop in the same way that I chanced upon you recently? You invited him and his family to eat with you that evening.”
Reb. Shlomo and his wife were becoming more puzzled every minute. How did Reb. Simcha know that they had once been rich? How did he know that they had once invited a poor family for a Friday night meal, and why was he telling them all this now?
Reb. Shlomo glanced at his wife then nodded as he turned back towards Reb. Simcha in order to hear more and, perhaps, begin to understand.
“There is one thing you may not remember. At the end of the meal that Friday night the poor man thanked you and promised that one day, with Hashem’s help, he would repay you for your generosity.
Reb. Shlomo! That poor man was I! It is I who promised to repay you and Hashem has helped me to be able to do so!”
As all became clear Reb Shlomo and his wife began to relax, very relieved now that everything had been fully explained but quite taken by surprise!
Reb. Simcha told them that he had recognised Reb. Shlomo immediately and had realised that this was a valuable opportunity to express his long-standing gratitude – an oppotunity that was indeed a gift from Hashem. Initially, Reb. Simcha had not intended to go as far as giving Reb. Shlomo’s family a new home but the cottage had been empty for a while and it would be a big mitzva to help make the standard of living of Reb. Shlomo’s family at least similar to what it had once been.
“There is one thing I have always done in order to constantly remind myself of my need to thank you properly,” continued Reb. Simcha;
“Having promised to repay you, I did not want to risk breaking that promise and decided to give myself a memory aid. From that Shabbat I began drawing a small kiddush cup on my calendar every week in the Erev Shabbat box. This reminder did its job well and when I recognised you outside the butcher’s shop, I was determined to invite you for supper that evening even before you had introduced yourself and told me your problems.”
There grew a strong bond between the two families, each of which had helped the other at a time of difficulty. Their great story of the power and beauty of chessed was passed on to the following generations as an everlasting lesson.
In order never to forget the promise he had made, Reb. Simcha had thought of a small sign, a kiddush cup written onto his calendar each week, as a constant reminder. Similarly, in this week’s sidra Hashem tells Noach: (Bereishit 9;15,16)
“And I will remember My covenant which is between Me and you and every living being of all flesh, and there will never again be water as a flood to destroy all flesh.
And the bow will be in the cloud and I will see it to remember the everlasting covenant between Hashem and every living being of all flesh which is on the earth.”
From Hashem’s own actions we learn not only to keep promises but to make very sure we do not forget any promise we have made. Indeed, the best advice is to avoid making promises at all, or to at least say ‘b’li neder’ (which means ‘I do not intend this as a definite vow’) after making a promise, just in case you do forget or you find that you are not able to keep it.
Take advantage of every opportunity to do chessed for others as well as to repay the chessed others have done for you!
© J. Richards 2004