Who can honestly say that she's never reacted to the large and small frustrations of her day with a resentful, "Why me?"
I certainly fall prey to that kind of thinking now and then. In my secret heart, I feel that I deserve better. My special concerns ought to be marked, "Handle with Care." Instead, all too often, they seem to be treated with a disheartening carelessness.
But one evening in which everything seemed to go wrong changed all that.
Kindness in the Express Lane
That evening, I left home to attend a history lecture -- the last in a spellbinding four-part series given by Rabbi Dovid Katz, Torah scholar and historian extraordinaire -- that I'd been looking forward to for days. Belatedly, I realized that I had an essential stop to make at the supermarket before going on to the lecture.
"This won't take more than a few minutes," I consoled myself. "I'm only picking up a few items. I'll use the express lane."
The line of customers at the express lane snaked away into the distance. As we waited – and waited -- the man behind me in line, ever alert for a potential new client, began to ask me what kind of insurance I had. I answered edgily, one eye on the cashier. She didn't seem to be any closer than when I'd begun my vigil.
"This line is not moving," I muttered.
"I think they're having a problem with the cash-register," my neighbor said cheerfully.
I promptly sidled out of that line and moved into the adjoining one -- also marked "Express" and considerably shorter than the first.
The young cashier at this line seemed to be very new on the job. With frequent relaxed pauses to check prices, void errors and languidly summon the manager for help, he had us inching forward at a snail's pace. I checked my watch every ten seconds, mentally gauging the amount of time it would take me to reach my destination and find a place to park in the vicinity of the shul… assuming that any parking at all was to be found by the time I got there.
"Excuse me," murmured a voice near my ear.
"Do you want to go ahead of me? I see you have only a few items."
Remembering the insurance salesman, I turned warily. An elderly woman stood just in front of me, patiently waiting her turn. She nodded at the three items in my cart. "Do you want to go ahead of me? I see you have only a few items."
Thanking her profusely, I switched places with my benefactress. I now had a fighting chance of getting to the lecture on time. I paid for my goods, offered a final thank-you to that nice woman, and scooted out the door.
Kindness at the Curb
I crawled up the dark street toward the shul, searching in vain for a place to park my mini-van. Time was running out.
Then I spotted it -- a narrow rectangle of space between two vehicles. After four attempts, the front half of my car was still sticking out into the street at a weird and unbeautiful angle. With a sigh, I put the gear in "Reverse" and prepared to try again.
A horn tapped nearby. A man in a car was motioning for me to roll down my window.
"Your car is just opposite my driveway," he said apologetically. "My wife is due home later, driving a 14-seater van. I'm afraid she won't have room to maneuver into the driveway if your car is parked here."
"I'm only going into the shul for the lecture," I said desperately. "It'll just be an hour or so." Anticipating a rebuff, my hand was already on its way to the gear shift to continue my weary search.
The man considered a moment, then smiled. "You know what? You can park in my driveway." My heart turned over in joyful surprise.
Showering him with thanks, I managed to execute a by-no-means simple perpendicular turn into the blessedly broad driveway. Then I hurried down the block on foot, one eye on the shul and the other, worriedly, on my watch.
A Friendly Face
As expected, nearly every row was filled. The audience was primed, expectant. I pictured myself crowded into a corner at the back of the room, barely able to see or hear.
As I made my way slowly up the aisle, scanning the sea of strange faces for an empty spot, I suddenly heard my name being called.
"Libby! Over here!"
The voice was slightly accented and more than slightly familiar. Tracking it to its source, I saw my friend's mother, recently relocated from London, waving at me with a big smile. "I'm so happy you made it!" she exclaimed. "Come on. Let's find two seats and sit together."
Before I could protest, she was on her feet, abandoning her prime location at the center of the shul to lead the way along the aisle. I followed her to a row near the front, where you had to twist your neck sharply to the left just to keep the lecturer in view. Triumphantly, she pointed to two adjoining seats, which we claimed.
Under the influence of her warm manner and radiant smile, the evening's tensions slipped smoothly off my shoulders like a heavy coat I didn't need anymore. I had come in out of the cold. I felt wanted and well cared for.
Three times that night I'd been agitated, anxious, beset by fears and frustrations. And three times someone had stepped up to bat and taken the problems away.
But why was it necessary for me to go through the agitation altogether, I wondered. In other words, "Why me?"
That's when I shifted focus and discovered that maybe it's not about me at all.
Rosh Hashana, the upcoming Jewish New Year, is a time when every individual passes beneath God's scrutiny to have his or her actions judged. Three people (two of them total strangers to me) would have a shining nugget dropped into their bag of good deeds for this night's work.
Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller once mentioned her friend, who suffers from serious medical problems that nearly forced her to miss her own son's bar mitzvah. With the help of many devoted friends and relatives, she was wheeled out of the hospital and into the hall just in time to be part of her son's celebration.
Maybe I had to experience my own small suffering in order to allow three other individuals to have the merit of alleviating it.
When asked why she thought she had to go through so much suffering, Rebbetzin Heller's friend answered simply, "I think my job is to provide other people with opportunities to earn the merit of helping me…"
Maybe I had to experience my own small suffering in order to allow three other individuals to have the merit of alleviating it. In the checkout line, on a dark street, in a lecture hall -- kindness is a two-way street. If I was the recipient, then a trio of people had been the lucky givers tonight.
In the age-old dance of chesed (acts of loving kindness) our steps are perfectly synchronized. When I fall back, others step forward. God created His world so that every void has a substance to fill it. Every hammer has its nail, every puzzle piece its match. Like figures in a folk dance, the world's haves and the have-nots constantly rotate, offering each the opportunity to give or take as the need arises
Or perhaps a better analogy would be that of a baseball diamond. Every pitcher has his batter. In the great ball game of life, I experienced a kindness triple-play that night. Now it's my turn to keep my eyes peeled for a ball that has my name on it.
May our bags of good deeds grow heavy with many, many shining nuggets this Rosh Hashana!