You know, we had a baby boy a few months ago,” Reb Chatzkel* began, by way of introduction.
“I was at the bris,” I reminded him.
Reb Chatzkel smiled. Then he continued to tell me his story:
Baruch Hashem, we have a bunch of kinderlach, and after the bris my wife went to the convalescent home for a few days. It’s the best thing in the world for any mother of a newborn baby. The only thing is, while my wife was away, I became the commander in chief. And I don’t have to tell you that running a house like mine is not the easiest thing in the world. The kids were staying at a bunch of different places and the house was on wheels. The laundry, the cooking; yes, we have older girls, but the bottom line was that everything was resting on me. Like the that famous line: The Buck Stops Here.
My wife finally returned home, which was great, except for the fact that all the kids came back as well, and I suddenly realized that there was absolutely nothing edible in the closets or fridge. We needed a major shopping trip, but the cavalry was here right now, needing to be fed. And there was nothing to give them.
In desperation, I decided to do something that I have never done before. I would take the army out to eat. Those of you who know me that this not something we ever do, but desperate times call for desperate measures.
There are numerous eateries located within a short distance of our home, and I decided on Grill Burger, fast-food-type place with a good hechsher and a nice range of meals that kids like. We found ourselves three comfortable booths, and everyone sat down and started to peruse the menu. Now I wasn’t really myself that day, as you can imagine. Add that to the fact that I’m no expert in the ways of restaurants, and you will understand that this was a recipe for disaster.
What should they order? The kids wanted to know. At that point, I should have gone over to the counter and ordered a bunch of the things that I knew they liked, like schnitzel and fries. Yes, looking back, a whole bunch of schnitzelach would have been a great idea. Tasty, oily, and nutritious, that would have filled up the gang and we would have been on our way with little damage done to my wallet. That’s what I didn’t do. What I did do was tell the kids that they should each order whatever struck their fancy.
Their eyes lit up. They studied the illuminated, glossy photos of the dishes above the counter: burgers (lamb or beef?), schnitzel, hot dogs, steak salads… What should they order? And what on the side? It took them a long time to make the call. And since there were other people eating and ordering at the same time as us, and since the restaurant had to prepare about twelve assorted dishes for us because every child wanted his own individual meal, and since they were very hungry, the wait seemed as interminable as the galus.
Add to this the fact that one of my kids remembered right then that she had to bring 40 bags of nosh for a birthday party in school the next day and another child suddenly recalled that she had a Chumash party and needed to bring a cake in the shape of the Torah, and you will understand that this was a meal to remember.
As everyone but myself knows (know this now as well, Reb Chatzkel said), restaurants really get you on the drinks. And since I had ceremoniously allowed each child to choose a drink of his own, instead of just purchasing two large bottles of soda, our outing was turning into a “try this drink” festival. Of course, with so many bottles on our tables some were bound to spill. My kids did their best not to disappoint. They spilled. And spilled.
And then the food arrived. Plate after plate after plate. I realized belatedly that I really could have ordered that one large platter of schnitzel and one huge platter of fries and maybe a tiny salad for the girls, and that would have been that. There were so many plates that I was getting nervous. They filled up the table from side to side and began moving on to the table next to us, and then one fell with a resounding crash only matched by the vocal gymnastics of the child whose plate it had been and who was now left plate-less. Not that I will ever know if she like what she had ordered in the first place.
Of course, the child needed to be compensated with another plate of food, which I ordered while wiping up the spilled drinks from the floor and soothing another kid who was (still) somewhat hysterical about all the stores being closed and not being able to purchase all 40 bags of nosh for the morrow. While all this was going on I closed my eyes. Silently, I decided that this was a nisayon that I was going to pass. And I kept my cool.
And then, after all this excitement and fun, after a wonderful culinary experience, we reached the point that I had known deep inside would come. It was time to pay. Now what?
Wordlessly, I stared at the mound of dishes and platters and bottles on the tables and my heart dropped. I knew, I just knew, that this outing – which had seemed like such a good idea at the time – was going to cost me way more than I had bargained for. But I had to pay. There was no choice. Slowly, I made my way to the counter to hear the bad news. How much was this little trip going to run me?
I looked at the guy behind the counter.
“How much?” I asked him.
His eyes held a bemused glint.
“Nothing,” he said.
“Nothing?” I repeated incredulously. How could that be?
“Nothing,” he confirmed.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because,” he pontificated slowly, clearly enjoying his moment in the sun, “while you were dealing with all of them, and the bottles and the plates were flying all over the place, someone – who obviously knows you – walked into the store and realized what was going on in your life right then.
“ ‘Listen,’ he said to me, ‘that man is having a hard day. I’m going to pay for the entire meal, but you can’t tell him who I am. Not a clue. Do we have a deal?’
“ ‘Of course,’ I told him. I mean, what do I care if your friend wants to pay for you to make your life easier?! And that, rabbi, is the reason why you don’t have to pay for the meal of a lifetime.”
I walked back to my table(s), gathered the older kids around me, and I said, “Kinderlach, I want you to understand something. When you are supposed to have a difficult day, when Hashem gives you a nisayon for whatever reason, you should never think for a second that He’s not with you the entire time.” I explained to the kids how someone had entered the store and paid for our entire meal and that I didn’t know who he was.
“Kids,” I said, “a person could go to a restaurant a million times and such an occurrence will not happen. But when Hashem wants to show you that He’s standing at your side, He will have someone walk into your life, smack bang when you’re in the middle of a crisis, and He will show you that He’s there for you. Did I have to go through the craziness of this outing? Yes, for whatever reason. But in the end, someone paid for us. Hashem was saying to me, ‘Look, I was standing with you the entire time. You had to have this nisayon, but you didn’t have to foot the bill. I decide what you have to go through and what you don’t have to go through.’ ”
Then, Reb Chatzkel went on, I told my kinderlach something that showed this lesson on a much greater scale.
About a year and a half ago, Reb Chatzkel continued, a yungerman was traveling to a bris on a Friday morning. His wife and daughter were in the car, as well. On the way to the bris there was a fatal accident. His wife and daughter were killed. I heard about the accident without knowing who it was. A day later, I learned that the yungerman was a talmid of mine. I wanted to be menachem avel, but he had been seriously wounded and was still in the hospital. As soon as the hospital gave him permission to return home, I went to visit.
I arrived at his house. He was a walking miracle. He entered the room on crutches, his face scarred and bandaged. He sat down. I sat down. I didn’t know what to say. What could I say to a person who had suffered such a tragic loss? Were there any words?
I looked at him. He looked at me.
“I do not know what to say to you,” I began, “I know it’s a mitzvah to comfort a mourner, but how can I presume to even try? Can I understand what you are going through? Such a thing never happened to me. How can I even attempt to comfort you?”
“Rebbi,” he said to me. “Can I ask you a question?”
“Certainly,” I replied.
“When the accident happened, I was knocked out immediately and lay there unconscious. Between the time of the accident and my arrival at the hospital, I regained consciousness three times, for a few seconds each. The first time I awoke, I saw my wife lying beside me and I knew that… I saw my daughter… and I knew. I knew. The pain was indescribable.
“The second time I awoke, I looked up and I saw that I was being treated by a frum woman paramedic. The only frum woman paramedic working for Magen David Adom. Rebbi, when I saw who was treating me, I felt a tremendous simchah fill my being. I knew that she would know what to do, who to contact for the burial, how to reach my relatives. In an island of incredible pain, it was a moment of happiness. The third time I woke up, it was as we were entering the hospital. Again, I recalled who had treated me and who was involved in my case, and again I was filled with an unaccountable joy.
“Rebbi,” my talmid said, “whenever I tell this over to the people who come to speak with me, I can see that they are uncomfortable. They fear I have lost my mind. That I have gone crazy. They shuffle their feet, they look at each other nervously. They don’t understand why and how I could have been happy. My wife and daughter had just been snatched away from me. My life was over! And I was happy because I was being treated by a frum paramedic! Was I crazy?
“So this is my question, Rebbi. Why was I so happy because of what I saw? Why was this something that blunted my overwhelming agony?”
My talmid sat there on the low chair, waiting for an answer, and I thought about his question. Suddenly the answer popped into my mind and I knew. I knew why he’d been so happy.
“It’s the famous question of Rav Chaim Shmulevitz,” I told him. “That’s your answer.”
Reb Chatzkel explained:
Rav Chaim Shmulevitz asks the following question. When Yosef HaTzaddik was sold, Chazal tell us that Hashem sent a caravan of Arabs who were transporting spices to take him down to Egypt. Rashi points out that Arab merchants of those days normally carried oil, not the raw ingredients for cologne! Answers Rashi, Hashem sent a caravan with a pleasant aroma so that Yosef should not have to suffer unduly.
Rav Chaim Shmulevitz then asks: Wait a second, Yosef HaTzaddik had just been thrown into a pit full of snakes and scorpions by his brothers. They had stripped him of his special cloak, faked his death to his father, and now they were selling him down the river for a life of slavery in Egypt. Do you really think that Yosef cared whether the people taking him down to Egypt were carrying oil or perfume?
Answers Reb Chaim: Hashem was sending Yosef a message, as follow. “For whatever reason, you have to go down to Egypt. I have My calculations. You are going to suffer now. You are going to go through terrible times. However,” Hashem said to him, “what you don’t have to suffer, you won’t suffer. You need to be in Egypt all by yourself, you need to go to jail, your father has to think that you are dead. It’s all part of the master plan. But you don’t have to suffer an unpleasant aroma as you travel, and you won’t.”
Hashem was telling Yosef that He was standing at his side the entire time, directing every event, every single thing that was taking place. And Yosef understood and was comforted. Because it’s comforting to know that you’re in Hashem’s hands the entire time.
“That is the answer to your question,” I said to my talmid. “You just went through the most terrible time a person could go through. A tragedy. Hashem yerachem. And only Hashem knows why this had to happen. But at the same time, you awoke and saw that a frum woman was treating you and this made you happy. Why? Because you realized that what you had just gone through had occurred with Hashem standing at your side. He was giving you a message, saying, ‘Yes, the accident had to happen, but you will be taken care of by someone who knows exactly what needs to be done.’ And because you realized that Hashem was by your side, you became extremely happy. It makes perfect sense. Do you hear what I’m saying?”
“He heard me,” Reb Chatzkel said to his children. “this explanation of his happiness rang so full of truth in his heart, that he said it over when he spoke at a gathering for his loved ones.”
As we got everyone together and made our way out of the restaurant, I told my kinderlach that sometimes things are difficult, but you have to remember that Hashem is standing at your side the entire time. Sometimes (like today) He might even send you a message so you can see for yourself. Other times He won’t. But it doesn’t really matter, because He’s always standing by your side. And that’s a fact.
“Of course,” Reb Chatzkel finished off, “that was one meal our family would never forget!”
As heard from “Reb Chatzkel”
(Reproduced from It Could Have Been You 2 by Rabbi Nachman Seltzer pages 81 – 88, with permission of the copyright holders, ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications, Ltd.)