We usually say that a person sits by his window. But my neighbor Eli Apalelo sat in his window, leaning out on the lookout over our sidewalk, perched on his right elbow. Whenever I walked by his apartment, in the heat of summer or in the cold of winter, Eli was there.
Eli seemed to know most of the passersby who walked by our street on their way to Jerusalem's Central Market. He would ask them with great concern, "How is your brother-in-law?" "How did your wife's operation go?" "Haven't seen you recently, are you feeling okay?"
I know very little about Eli Apalelo. I know that he was born on our street in the 1930s. I know that he had been a hero in the Israeli War of Independence. I know that he had a debilitating medical condition, but I don't know what it was because whenever I asked him about his health, he insisted, "My health isn't important! What is important is how you and the little ones are feeling!" I know that Eli loved people, and people loved him.
When the neighborhood children played outside, Eli watched over them from his window. He would send the little boys home on cold days to put on jackets. He would ask the little girls about their birthday parties and their older brothers and sisters about their progress in school.
Eli understood that giving ultimately brings more joy than receiving.
Eli understood that giving ultimately brings more joy than receiving. I sense that he was simply born with this eternal truth fixed in his heart.
Towards the end of his life, ambulances would come and go once every few weeks to ferry Eli back and forth to the hospital. Whenever he was at home, we would bring him Shabbat food. One week he apologized when he returned the food to us untouched. He explained that he could no longer digest anything except hot tea and crackers.
The last time I saw Eli was the day before he died. He looked so sickly that his face matched his gray sweater. I asked him how he was feeling. He looked past me to nod at some people walking by, took in what would be one of his last deep breaths of the air of this city that he loved so much, and looked into the space above my head with a heartfelt smile. Eli said, "How am I feeling? Thank the Lord!"
When I walked by Eli's window later that day, it was closed. Nobody on our street ever saw him again. But to this day, every time I walk by his window -- tightly shut against the elements and covered over with curtains -- I remember and miss him.
WINDOW OF THE HEART
A few years ago, I met a woman named Rebbetzin Esther who, like my neighbor Eli, lives in her window. But the window she opens is not made of glass and metal. Her window is the window of her heart that she opens to those around her.
Rebbetzin Esther was raised together with two children whose parents became mentally unstable as a result of their experiences in the Holocaust. She recalls that she was disgusted by the way these children, who had never learned table manners, shoveled food into their mouths. Once, Esther asked her mother if she would serve their meals in two different shifts, so that she would not have to eat together with the adopted children.
Esther's mother shot her a stern look, that still makes Rebbetzin Esther stand a bit straighter fifty years later. "Esther, in this family, we do not only live for ourselves!"
Her mother's message is one that has accompanied Rebbetzin Esther throughout her whole life. When Rebbetzin Esther was the young mother of several small children, this meant that she and her husband made an extra effort to open their home to Shabbat guests. And now that she is a grandmother, it means teaching classes to thousands of women on the meaning of Jewish womanhood, and counseling countless others who seek her wise insight on marriage and child-rearing.
Once I went to Rebbetzin Esther in order to receive her advice about an article I was writing. At the end of our conversation, Rebbetzin Esther started walking towards the next woman who was waiting to speak with her. But after a few steps she turned around to face me, pointed her finger upwards, and declared, "Writing is a mission from God to help the world!"
If you had asked me before that conversation why I write, I would have said that it's because I love writing. Rebbetzin Esther's simple statement made me see my occupation differently. She switched my focus from me to you. From me to those around me.
Eli Apalelo and Rebbetzin Esther taught me that each of us has a window. And one of the most important decisions we make is whether our window will be open or shut. Are we going to close ourselves up in our own lives, our own needs, our own desires? Or are we going to decide, as Rebbetzin Esther's mother did, that in our family we do not only live for ourselves.
Are we going to pretend we do don't see an elderly neighbor on the street, or are we going to stop rushing and stop and talk? Are we going to list the 20 reasons why we are far too busy this week, or are we going to make the time to visit a community member who is in the hospital?
Are we going to be one of the countless multitudes who stroll through life cursing the darkness, or are we going to be one of those special individuals who takes the time and invests the effort to light a candle?