Relaying the events of the day over supper, my husband, a teacher in a local Jewish school, told me how on this, the last day of school, he and his class of fifth-graders had an end-of-the-year party, celebrating everything they had learned this year. The event progressed nicely, with the principal offering a few words, followed by a fun, action-packed game, and then a short meal, accompanied by spirited singing.
As the kids were setting the tables for the meal, they set aside one table for the delectable goodies that some of the mothers had sent. One boy in the class, a shy, sensitive boy, had brought a particularly beautiful cake. His mother had apparently spent lots of time and dedication into preparing the cake, showing her pride of his accomplishments. The boy was visibly proud as he gingerly set the elaborate cake onto the table.
Still in its box, the cake flopped onto the floor, crushed and completely ruined.
And then, in the cramped classroom full of exuberant kids, the inevitable happened. Someone must have pushed by without looking where he was going, and inadvertently shoved the cake off the table. Still in its box, the cake flopped onto the floor, crushed and completely ruined.
My husband watched as the boy struggled to maintain his composure. He put on a brave face, and with the large, forced grin of someone trying hard not to cry, went about his tasks without saying a word to the classmate who ruined his cake. But after 10 minutes of struggling with that smile, his façade crumbled as the boy suddenly lost his composure and began sobbing. My husband put his arm around his student's shoulder and led him out of the room.
"Here," he said, as he looked into the boy's eyes and handed him a $20 bill. "Take this money and go over to the nearby bakery, and get whatever cake you wish for the entire class.
“But," he added, as the boy reached for the bill, "I want one thing from you in return.
"I watched you as your classmate pushed your beautiful cake onto the floor, and what I saw amazed me. I saw how you held back and did not say a word to the offender. I watched as you bravely tried to smile and overcome your emotions. So in exchange for this $20, I would like the merit of the mitzvah of your not having embarrassed another person publicly."
The boy stared wide-eyed at his teacher as the words registered. Slowly, a small smile formed at his lips as he gently shook his head, as if to say, “No, if you feel so strongly about this merit, then I’m not giving it up so fast.”
The boy handed back the money to my husband, and the two walked back together into the classroom, appeased.
But the story does not end here. My husband then turned to the class and asked, “What exactly are we celebrating here today? Why is it that some of your mothers spent precious time, preparing cakes for us to mark this occasion? Is it just so that we get to eat some good food? No, it is because these delicacies stand for something. They are a symbol of our joy at having completed another year of learning Torah. They are a symbol of your parents' pride in what you have accomplished. That's what these cakes are all about.
"This is a truly special cake."
"Here," he said, pointing at the messy, crushed cake ensconced forlornly in its box, "we have a cake that symbolizes all of that, and yet so much more. This is a cake that symbolizes both the love of learning, and the ability of one boy to win over his emotions. It is the symbol of a child who was able to struggle with, and then contain, his anger. This is a truly special cake."
The class grew quiet as everyone looked at the blushing boy. And then, every single one of them reached over and took a piece of the flat, messy cake.
And not a single crumb was left.