Vayeishev: ‘All for the Best’

On the top deck one lunch time Mr. and Mrs. Katz and their son Shimshon reached the front of the queue at a pair of large oil drums. The crew had provided these for the Jewish passengers to use for washing their hands before making ‘hamotzi’. One drum had been filled with water and hands were washed over the second one. Before taking the large metal cup being used for pouring the water Mrs. Katz removed her gold wedding ring and put it between her lips. As she began pouring over her right hand above the second drum a sneeze caught her by surprise and the ring shot away.

The Katz’s were on their way to America from their home town of Mannheim in Germany. The year was 1937. Shimshon was ten years of age and an only child. Mr. Katz had worked in Mannheim as both sofer (scribe) and synagogue carpenter for his local community. When he was not busy writing ‘Sifrei Torah’, ‘Tefillin’ and ‘Mezuzot’, he would be crafting ‘Atzei Chaim’ (Torah scroll rollers), and building or repairing synagogue furniture – Torah cabinets, benches or book stands. However, as life became more and more hazardous for Jews not only had Mr. Katz found himself without any regular work but he and Mrs. Katz had realised they should leave the country as soon as possible.

Once they had saved the cost of their long journey they packed some clothes together with a few treasured personal items and boarded a train which would take them across France. At the end of a slow, hot and rickety ride in an overcrowded carriage the Katz family rushed excitedly onto a boat at LeHavre in northern France. The ship stopped along the coast at Cherbourg for several hours then embarked upon a long haul across the Atlantic Ocean, to the new and safer life for which many of its passengers prayed.

There were many Jews on the ship and the crew were being very accommodating, designating areas for prayer and providing water for washing ‘negel vasser’. This particular day was one of the finest since leaving Cherbourg. The air was still and cool, here and there sparkling with warm rays of sunlight. Mrs. Katz was now peering into the oil drum where she was certain her ring had dropped but could not see it. She and Mr. Katz kept an eye on the drum as they ate their meal. They then returned to it when it was no longer in use to carefully let the water out and search for the ring properly. They did not find it.

Mrs. Katz said ‘gam zu l’tova’- this too is for the best – and they returned calmly to where they had been sitting, hoping the ring might still be found. This is only a small example of the faith the Katz’s had at all times that whatever happens is somehow for the best, part of Hashem’s greater plan, and can not always be understood immediately. They would seldom become upset by what appeared to be bad fortune. As the rest of this story unfolds we shall see how the Katz’s continued to trust in Hashem’s ways over the years and how their trust was often repaid in blessings.

A little later on Shimshon went to find a quiet corner where he could work on two ‘Atzei Chaim’ he had been making with some tools his father had packed. He found a suitable spot near the oil drums and sat down. A few feet away from him sat a middle aged couple, the gentleman reading and his wife sewing a tapestry, a colourful wicker sewing basket open at her side and a contented, kindly smile on her face.

The gentleman put down his book as he noticed this young boy filing away at two pieces of wood. He introduced himself as Alan Pearl. Shimshon looked up as Mr. Pearl crouched next to him. Mr. Pearl was very impressed with Shimshon’s work and told him that he had a furniture factory in America where he might be able to employ Shimshon as a craftsman in a few years’ time. Shimshon smiled, for he knew that these were no more than kind words of encouragement. Nevertheless, Shimshon was indeed encouraged by Mr. Pearl’s words which implanted in him the hope that he might become a successful carpenter-craftsman one day.

After arriving in America the Katz’s settled quite quickly. Mr Katz found a job mending and reconditioning antique furniture, most of which was imported from Europe. He had done a lot of similar work in Germany on old synagogue furniture and the owner of the large antique shop where he worked was most impressed with his skills. However, this job was not very well paid and Mrs. Katz also had to look for work to supplement her husband’s income.

Mrs. Katz was offered a position in a Jewish primary school as teacher of ‘Limmudei Kodesh’, Jewish studies, which she accepted happily. She herself had received a Jewish education on a much higher level than many other women since her father was a significant ‘Talmid Chacham’ – Torah scholar – who had received his training from some of the greatest rabbis of the generation. Although Mrs. Katz’s father had gone on to a career in business Mrs. Katz always remembered the many people who revered him as much as they did the local rabbi and came to him at home to ask questions on numerous issues of Jewish law. The school considered itself very blessed to have her on its staff and she was thankful to the Almi-ghty for enabling her to help support her family.

An additional blessing that arose out of Mrs. Katz receiving her teaching post came about a few months later. The school Shimshon had been attending since he and his parents had arrived in America was moving to larger premises. Shimshon’s parents had already been finding it difficult to get him to school and back because of the building’s location five miles from their home. No one else who had children in the school lived near enough to the Katz’s to be able to give Shimshon daily lifts so Mr. Katz had accompanied his son every morning and afternoon on buses. Shimshon’s parents were continually apologizing both to the school and to Mr. Katz’s employer for what often appeared to be bad time keeping but what was actually the natural consequence of difficult circumstances, particularly when the buses were running late. No other school had been able to offer Shimshon a place so he had had no choice but to endure these tiresome journeys every day in addition to getting used to living in a strange country and learning a new language.

Now that the school was moving even further from the Katz’s home Shimshon’s parents had no other option but to withdraw him from it and look again for something nearer. At no time did they despair, always having faith that ‘gam zu l’tova’. When Mr. and Mrs. Katz had originally been looking for a school for Shimshon Mrs. Katz had not yet found a job. Now, however, things were different. Upon learning of the Katz’s difficult circumstances Mrs. Katz’s headmaster invited her into his office. He explained that he had not originally been able to offer Shimshon a place because there had not been one available. However, a boy of Shimshon’s age had just left the school, and he always offered places first to his staff.

Mrs. Katz was overjoyed, as were Mr. Katz and Shimshon when they heard the good news. Shimshon was particularly pleased because not only was his mother’s school only a minute’s walk from home but it was also well known for its excellent art and craft department, something the other school did not have at all. Furthermore, this primary school was attached to a Yeshiva high school into which Shimshon would automatically graduate at the age of eleven – now in only six months’ time.

Shimshon settled in the High school very quickly and soon became popular with pupils and teachers alike. He spent many hours in the woodwork room where he was able to apply the skills he had learnt from his father. His parents were always proud to hear from the teacher that Shimshon’s work was far more advanced than that of any of his classmates.

In Shimshon’s final year in the school he won a competition with a wooden photograph frame he had made to hold a photograph of his grandparents. Mrs. Katz had expected her father to arrive in America shortly after herself and her family. His wife had died some years earlier leaving him with no other relatives besides his daughter, son in law and grandson. He had promised to close up his business as quickly as he could then take the first available boat to join up with his family in America. However, the war had now ended and since Mrs. Katz had not heard a word from her father for around eight years she had assumed he must have suffered the sad fate of so many others.

Shimshon had found an old photo of his mother’s parents and had decided to craft an ornamental frame for it. Mrs. Katz was overjoyed when Shimshon presented her with the beautiful frame containing a photograph of her parents that she had forgotten she even possessed.

Shimshon’s mother then decided to surprise her son by entering the frame in a local craft competition. Shimshon won first prize and the frame, complete with the photo of Shimshon’s grandfather, was displayed in the window of an art shop for several weeks accompanied by a plaque proclaiming Shimshon as the winning local craftsman.

Before the excitement of winning the competition had worn off the Katz’s received a phone call from the owner of the art shop. There had been a burglary during the night and among the things stolen was the framed photograph. Shimshon and his parents were shocked and confused. Why should such an awful thing happen? Why should their happy excitement not be given the chance to run its course? Mrs. Katz had no other photograph of her parents together, and she felt as if many memories had been stolen from her. She nevertheless remained the tower of strength she had always been and reminded Shimshon and his father that ‘gam zu l’tova’ – although it did not seem so now in time Hashem might reveal to them how this sad occurence had been for the best.

After leaving school Shimshon went away to Yeshiva for two years where he earned his keep by doing small carpentry jobs such as making or mending bookshelves and fixing wobbly chairs. He studied hard and learned well. However, the time came when he was needed at home. Mrs. Katz had become unwell and could not work. Shimshon’s father had to take care of his wife and therefore was only able to work part time.

Shimshon quickly returned home and began to search for a job. He noticed an advertisement for a ‘craftsman’s assistant’ with a company called A. Pearl and Son furniture and applied immediately. Shimshon was interviewed by the younger Mr. Pearl since Mr. Pearl senior was out of town. During the interview Shimshon noticed a photograph of Mr. Pearl junior with his father. A shiver shot through Shimshon’s body as he recognised Mr. Pearl senior as the man who had approached him years earlier on the boat from Europe.

Three days after the interview a written offer arrived in the post. Shimshon accepted the offer and began work the following week. He had imagined himself being involved with the hands-on crafting of furniture, but instead he found himself cleaning the machinery. His parents were upset by this and felt that the job title ‘craftsman’s assistant’ had been misleading, if not dishonest. They nevertheless reminded Shimshon that ‘kol ma d’avid Rach-mana l’tav avid’ – everything that Hashem does is for the best. Since Shimshon had always been brought up to believe this to be true he accepted his parents’ words. However, they all agreed that it would be a good idea if Shimshon were to make something to impress Mr. Pearl on his return in the hope that he might thereby be offered a better job. The furniture produced in the factory was of an unimpressive quality in Shimshon’s opinion and he was sure Mr. Pearl senior would decide Shimshon’s talents should be put to more constructive use.

Every day the factory discarded many lengths of timber which were either poorly coloured, misshapen or full of hard or unsightly knots. Shimshon was given permission to take home several pieces of rough wood. He did so and set to work without delay, excited at the thought of impressing the factory owner upon his return. Using some tools Mr. Katz had brought from Europe Shimshon made an ornate mahogany jewellery box complete with an inlaid olive wood pattern in the doors and smoothly sliding drawers.

One morning Shimshon spied a large car parking in the factory grounds. Upon asking about it he was informed that it belonged to Mr. Pearl who must have returned from his trip. During his lunch break Shimshon ran home to get the jewellery box so that he could show it to the factory owner. He quickly returned to the factory and made his way to the management offices. There was a light on in one of the offices and the door was open. Two men were talking inside, one of whom was Mr. Pearl junior. The other was somewhat older. Shimshon knocked. He asked whether Mr. Pearl senior was available to speak to. The older man stepped forward and said that he was Mr. Pearl, the factory owner. He asked how he could help.

Shimshon was taken aback. All this time he had expected Mr. Pearl to be the man he had met on the boat, whom he had seen in the photograph during his interview. He nevertheless decided to go ahead and proudly show off his handiwork.

He stepped forward and, holding one of the handles of a brown paper bag with one hand reached into it with the other. However, before the jewellery box was even half way out of the bag Mr. Pearl senior told him not to bother. People were always bringing things they had made to Mr. Pearl’s office and he really was not able to look at all of them. Shimshon was asked to put his package next to several others on a shelf in a corner of the room and Mr. Pearl junior assured him a little insincerely he would try to have his father look at it as soon as the right moment came along.

As the weeks passed by Shimshon began to lose hope but his parents kept telling him to have faith in Hashem. Even if Shimshon’s present employers were not interested in his talents he would still be successful in time as long as he remained determined, continued to look for opportunities and always remembered that whatever happens is somehow for the best. ‘Gam zu l’tova,’ they would always remind him.

Shimshon decided to begin applying for other jobs. He was not happy with what he was doing and it was clear to him that as long as he remained with Pearl and Son his abilities would not be recognised and put to good use.

Over the next few weeks a number of responses to Shimshon’s job applications arrived, all of them negative. One morning, disappointed at having another negative reply, Shimshon was called in to see Mr. Pearl senior. He had come across the jewellery box whilst tidying his office the previous day.

He told Shimshon he thought there would be demand for such products and was willing to let Shimshon take a key role in overseeing their manufacture. Shimshon would have to work with the machine operators on designing a similar piece for mass production – the factory would not be able to exactly reproduce the fine hand crafted detail in the original.

However, Shimshon’s handiwork would still be required for one finishing touch. Each jewellery box would have a hand chiseled inscription on the back – ‘Hand Made in Europe’. This would be the personal work of Shimshon and other craftsmen whom he would train.

Shimshon was shocked. He had been brought up according to the Torah and Mr. Pearl was suggesting he be involved in a dishonest business venture which would set out to trick the public and profit from doing so. Not wishing to hear another word Shimshon interrupted his employer to make clear that he would not even consider taking part in such an endeavour. Mr. Pearl became quite cross and warned his employer that disloyalty to the company could lose him his job. Shimshon repeated he would not have any part in Mr. Pearl’s proposal, at which point he was handed the jewellery box and told his services were no longer required – that is, he was fired on the spot.

Mr. and Mrs. Katz were proud of their son for standing up to his boss and refusing to be involved in a dishonest venture, despite the fact that it had cost him his job. What neither Shimshon nor his parents knew was that contained in one of the drawers of the jewellery box was a small note which read: “Please contact Alan Pearl, telephone number …..” Alan Pearl, the gentleman Shimshon had met on the boat, was a cousin of Shimshon’s former employer, Alfred Pearl. He had been visiting the factory on business and had been so impressed with the jewellery box that he had quickly and secretly scribbled this note and slipped it into the small ornate top drawer. He had been looking to employ a talented craftsman and hoped the designer of this beautiful piece of work might be interested in an offer of work. He did not know it had been made by the boy to whom he had spoken several years before on the boat from Europe.

The note remained in the drawer, unnoticed, as Shimshon sat down to write some more applications. His father had made a suggestion, however, which he thought might be of some help in the mean time. Mr. Katz had been working in the back of the antique dealer’s shop. He said that if the jewellery box were to be displayed in the front window of the antique shop it might generate interest which could bring Shimshon some business. He would take it into work the next day to see if his boss would mind very much having it on show.

Once it had been coated with a good quality varnish and polished to a sheen the jewellery box looked most impressive and not at all inferior to the magnificent Victorian bureau on which it sat in the shop-front display. Mr. Katz’s employer had been so enthusiastic to help the struggling young craftsman he had personally added some finishing touches to the jewellery box which made it difficult to tell it from the most professionally crafted piece of work. Indeed, no sooner had it been put on view to passers by people began to stop and admire it from the street.

Over the next few weeks Shimshon received more negative replies to his job applications. Every letter bore the same message, ‘Unfortunately, we can not offer you a position at this time but will keep your application form in our records for future reference….’“Gam zu l’tova,” Shimshon’s parents would say. “One day,” they would continue, “you may realise how Hashem’s plan for your success has been working for you the whole time. You must simply trust Him. It may take a while but just have faith and be patient.”

One day a well dressed lady entered the antique shop to inquire about the jewellery box in the window. Knowing the lady’s husband was a collector of antiques the proprietor pointed out that this piece had been crafted by a local young man. The lady was still sure her husband would like it and asked to buy it. It was explained to her that this particular piece was not actually for sale.

Mr. Katz was working at the back of the shop. He put his tools down excitedly and came out to speak to the customer. He told her she may take the jewellery box to show it to her husband. She took it home and explained to her husband what had happened. When he saw what his wife had chanced upon a broad grin lit up his face. Then without a word he gently pulled open one of the drawers to find the small, scribbled note. He sighed deeply, still grinning and handed the note to his wife who was most surprised to see that it was written in her husband’s own handwriting.

The same evening the Katz’s received a telephone call from the same lady, who introduced herself as Sarah Pearl. Shimshon and his parents were so excited to hear that the lady’s husband wanted to discuss the possibility of Shimshon coming to work for him that her name did not really register in their minds. A meeting was arranged for the next afternoon at Mrs. Pearl’s home. Both of Shimshon’s parents decided to accompany their son in order to provide him with support and advice.

Mrs. Pearl greeted the Katz’s with a welcoming smile and invited them into her lounge. Her husband would be home very soon. Shimshon felt he recognised Mrs. Pearl but could not think from where. When she brought the Katz’s some drink and cake Shimshon’s father thanked Mrs. Pearl using her name :  “Thank you, Mrs. Pearl.”  This triggered Shimshon’s memory and as he looked up he noticed on his hostess’s face a gentle smile he had definitely seen before.

When Mr. Pearl arrived home Shimshon recognised him instantly. Alan Pearl was pleasantly surprised to find that the craftsman to whom he intended to offer a job was the boy he had met all those years earlier in very different circumstances. The Katz’s and the Pearls exchanged stories. Shimshon and his parents explained how they had mistaken the identity of Shimshon’s previous employer, A. Pearl who had turned out to be Alfred and not Alan. Then Alan Pearl explained that actually Alfred Pearl was his cousin.

He showed his guests the note he had secretly left in the drawer of the jewellery box when he had noticed it in his cousin’s office. Alan and Alfred had inherited their grandfather’s business, but had split it between them years earlier. Alan had kept the traditional side of the business which produced high quality, purely hand crafted furniture, whilst Alfred had been attracted to mass production with modern machinery.

Alan had been looking to hire a talented craftsman to join his team and had been so impressed with the jewellery box he had written this note hoping he might meet the person who had made it in order to make an attractive offer of employment. He did not wish to poach workmen from his cousin, but he knew that Alfred was very hot-headed and often fired people in a fit of arrogance. Alan had only wished to make himself known in case such a situation should arise and as things turned out it is exactly what happened.

Although Shimshon had not found the note, Hashem had made alternative plans which had worked just as well. Alan Pearl described to the Katz’s the job he had in mind for Shimshon and after some discussion his offer was accepted and the conversation became a little more relaxed. At one point Shimshon referred to Mrs. Pearl’s sewing basket which sat at the side of a bookcase in a corner of the room. Shimshon remembered it from the boat and Mrs. Pearl told everyone through a chuckle that she had not used the basket since that journey. As memories began to fill her mind she lifted the sewing basket onto her lap and removed the lid.

Her smile changed to a solemn frown as she dipped her hand in to remove something which had caught her attention. “What have we here?” she wondered aloud. She took out a small gold ring and held it up for all to see, at which point Mrs. Katz’s mouth dropped open.

“May I see that for a moment?” asked Mr. Katz.

He took the ring and gave it to his wife who tried it on. It fit her perfectly. Shimshon’s parents were overjoyed. They explained how the wedding ring had got lost on the boat. Mrs. Katz had thought it had fallen into one of the oil drums when she sneezed. Now they knew the ring had dropped into Mrs. Pearl’s sewing basket – and there it had remained all these years!

How could they be sure this was Mrs. Katz’s ring? Her ring had had to be made specially to fit her unusually small knuckles. No other ring would have slipped snugly onto her finger like her own wedding ring. There was no doubt this was the ring she had never expected to see again.

Everyone agreed that it was no less than miraculous that Mrs. Katz should be reunited with her wedding ring after so long, but an even greater miracle was about to occur. The conversation had turned to a discussion of Mr. Katz’s work in Germany before the war. Mr. Pearl was then asked what he had been doing in Europe before boarding that boat. He told his guests he had traveled to Germany to use some influence he had in the business community to help finance the emigration of German Jews to America. He took Shimshon and his parents into another room to show them a photograph of the man who had been his main contact in Germany.

As everyone walked through to the dining room Mr. Pearl spoke with great respect and admiration in his voice of this tzaddik, righteous man, who had remained in Germany even when the rest of his family had left. Such was his commitment to help as many of his Jewish brethren as he could to escape life under the curse of Nazi wickedness that he himself was prepared to suffer it longer for their sake. Only when he believed there was no more he could do did he leave Germany himself, miraculously leaving his house for the last time only hours before the Gestapo arrived on his doorstep to arrest him, “…and over a year after I had left Germany for the last time myself,” Mr. Pearl pointed out.

As Mr. Pearl reached for the framed photograph of the man of whom he had spoken, the Katz’s stopped still, almost frozen motionless by what they saw before them. It was the photograph of Mrs. Katz’s parents Shimshon had framed and which had been stolen long ago. How had it ended up in Alan Pearl’s dining room and had Mrs. Katz’s father really been the man with whom Mr. Pearl had worked in helping Jews escape from Germany? Even before Shimshon’s parents had a chance to ask the many questions that were beginning to swirl around in their heads there was a knock at the front door. Mrs. Pearl went to open it then returned a few moments later accompanied by no less than Mrs. Katz’s father himself!

Emotional reunions were followed by countless questions and even more answers. It was now clear why Mrs. Katz’s father had not left with them. He explained how for years he had tried to trace his daughter and her family but with little success. He and Alan Pearl had always remained friends, however, and he now saw that it was through this friendship that Hashem had brought his family back together.

“What about the photograph?” asked Shimshon. The thieves must have decided it was worthless and sold it to a local charity shop for the few pennies they could get. Mr. Pearl had seen it in the window and bought it immediately in order to give it to Mrs. Katz’s father. In fact it was to collect the photograph that Mrs. Katz’s father had come this evening.

Now, however, Mr. Pearl was happy to be able to return it to its rightful owners. As he handed it to Mrs. Katz she remarked on a crack in a corner of the frame, but Shimshon comforted her with the words…..“gam zu l’tova!!”

***

It is not always very easy to believe that everything that happens to us is for the best. However, the stronger our belief that every event is an important part of Hashem’s great plan for the world the easier it will be for us to keep our faith at difficult times. When the Katz family said “gam zu l’tova” they did so with faith in their hearts that Hashem always has some reason for his actions, that no event is without purpose.

The Rabbis of the Talmud teach us that we should even bless Hashem when an apparently bad event happens as well as when we experience a good one:

“One is obligated to bless upon evil as he would upon good.”
(Mishnah Berachot 9;5)

Each event happens as a result of Hashem’s judgement that it is the right place and time for that event to occur, which is why the blessing on hearing bad news is ‘Blessed is…the True Judge’ (Berachot 9;2).

“Anyone viewing the scene of Yosef being brought down to Egypt as a slave,” writes Rabbi Zelig Pliskin in ‘Growth Through Torah’, 
“would have considered it a major tragedy. His brothers sold him into slavery and he was being taken far away from his father and his homeland. But the reality was that this was the first step towards his being appointed the second in command of Egypt. He would eventually be in charge of the national economy of Egypt and would be the mastermind behind the complex programme to prepare for the years of famine during the years of plenty.” 
(Growth Through Torah, p.110)

Yosef himself appears constantly aware of Hashem’s guidance. In Bereishit 39,3 just after we have been told of Potiphar buying Yosef from the Yishmaelites, we read:

“His master perceived that Hashem was with him,” upon which Rashi comments:
“The name of G-d was a familiar word in his mouth.”
Yosef often spoke of Hashem, even in passing, an example we follow nowadays when we say ‘Baruch Hashem!’ (Blessed is Hashem!), ‘Be’ezrat Hashem!’ (with Hashem’s help!), ‘Im yirtzeh Hashem!’ (if it is Hashem’s will!), ‘Chasdei Hashem!’ (Hashem’s lovingkindness!) and suchlike.

Finally, when Yosef later reveals his identity to his brothers he comforts them with the following words:

(Bereishit 45; 5,8) “And now, be not distressed, nor reproach yourselves for having sold me here, for it was to be a provider that Hashem sent me ahead of you… …And now, it was not you who sent me here, but Hashem; He has made me father to Pharaoh, master of his entire household and ruler throughout the entire land of Egypt.”

***

© J. Richards 2004

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