A number of years ago, when my wife was a stay-at-home mother, her daily schedule consisted entirely of dreaming up new forms of entertainment for our 2-year-old son and his 6-month-old sister. One fateful morning, a combination of desperation and inspiration brought a shout to my wife's lips as she gazed through the kitchen window: "Yitzie, the trash men are coming!" Our son, caught up in the excitement of the moment, raced for the garage door with a squeal not unlike the sound of the big truck's brakes.
Without a doubt, no one else in our town would be displaying any such enthusiasm. Our trash collectors are not revered for their social graces. Then again, I don't suppose I'd have a terribly pleasant disposition either if it were my job to remove other people's trash.
But if our automated robot-arm trash trucks provide a fitting symbol for our impersonal, mechanized world, they also provide small children with a captivating diversion as they lumber through their appointed rounds. My wife called our son as he toddled to the top of the driveway, "Yitzie, say thank you to the men for taking our garbage."
They stood frozen in their tracks, staring in wonder at the barefoot boy in diapers applauding them for their service.
To the garbage men, the sight of a pint-sized boy with his hand rotating like a corkscrew shouting, "Tank 'oo! tank 'oo!" must have appeared comical. But we all desire recognition, and in all likelihood these overlooked public servants had traversed the same streets for months or years receiving only the rarest signs of appreciation for their labors. This time, they stood frozen in their tracks, staring in wonder at the barefoot boy in diapers applauding them for their service.
Greeting the garbage men became a weekly ritual, with our son eagerly awaiting their arrival every Wednesday morning at the kitchen window. During the summer, his 5-year-old brother and 7-year-old sister would stand beside him, also waving and intoning words of thanks, but without Yitzie's zeal and bubbling exuberance. And when the school year began, it was Yitzie by himself again, all smiles and salutations, waiting to shower greetings and accolades upon his loyal public servants at the foot of the driveway.
Within a few weeks, the trash men underwent a remarkable transformation, approaching our house with sparkling eyes, toothy grins, and their own shouts of "What's up big guy? How ya doin'?" The seeds of a few moments' diversion for a little boy seemed to have sprouted into the highlight of the week for a few humble workers. The world was a better place for the unassuming good will of a child.
Wednesday mornings eventually returned to normal, as Yitzie left home for elementary school and the trash men sank back into their unabated drudgery. For a while, my wife and I sadly recalled how easy it had been for an unassuming child to brighten his little corner of the world, to chase away skepticism, cynicism, and self-absorption of his elders. But even as we slipped back into our own routines, we tried not to forget the experience altogether.
The great sage Shammai, known best for his strict and uncompromising approach to Jewish law, also taught his followers to "receive every person with a pleasant countenance." We all want to be validated as human beings. We all know how a simple smile from a stranger can cheer up our day. And yet we so often wait for others to initiate when such a small investment yields returns vastly disproportionate to the effort and energy it requires.
This simple lesson of kindness and gratitude, so easily taught and learned, can be just as easily untaught and unlearned. But if it is planted deep enough in youth, if its roots are given a chance to grow strong and take hold, then -- like a garden of perennials cut back before the winter's frost -- it may force its shoots upward again until it bursts forth in the full blossom and beauty of adulthood to smile upon the world.