Wednesday, August 19, 2009

My neighbor the hero

When I was a young girl growing up in the Bronx, New York we had an elderly jewish couple as our next door neighbors. To an outsider they were simple people. He painted homes for a living and she was a housewife. They let us read their newspapers when they were done and we translated their mail into russian for them and wrote letters in english when they needed. She made pickles and other homemade delicacies and took care of her children and grandchildren. When they went on vacations or to visit their son in Israel we took care of their cat and looked after the apartment. Once in passing our neighbor mentioned that in all her married life her husband never came home at night and not have a hot meal waiting for him. My teenage self did not think of it as much of an accomplishment, "Big deal, a hot supper every night". I was not mature enough then to appreciate the full significance of what she said. But I suddenly remembered that comment many years later, now as an adult. And then it hit me, it wasn't only that the logistics were amazing but what it all meant. Given the age of my neighbors it was obvious that their lifespan included the times when both peace and resources were scarce. She surely had many more things to worry about than what to cook for supper. But more than that, her commitment and selflessness is astounding. It is indeed something special to be able to put someone else's needs above your own not just on occasion, but day in and day out for decades. I wrote before about making mitzvos beautiful. It's easy to see how an object could be beautiful - a beautiful esrog and a lovely challah cover. But there is also making the interpersonal mitzvos beautiful by going the extra mile, by being kind even when it's not convenient. My neighbor was not very observant, but I think that this was her special mitzva, the one that she really invested all her being and love into and that is not something to sneeze at. I am sure that in Hashem's eye all those years of hot suppers are a rare gem. She is a type of hero that the Pirkei Avos writes about when they say that the mighty one is the one that rules over his/her inclination.


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