My day ended somewhere in Northeastern Oregon, where I could while away some time before a morning appointment in Tacoma. Instead of taking the shortest route to Tacoma, I wanted to see Mt Rainier on my way there. So I steered my vehicle off the interstate and left behind the volcanic landscape with fruit orchards in the valleys around Yakima. Soon I was driving through different valleys - mountain gorges surrounded by high, but still volcanic, peaks.
At first my car zoomed into a tunnel of greenery made out of cedars and pines and leafy trees. But the green subway quickly got darker, as only Evergreen trees can survive the harsh winter conditions of a higher elevation.
After the mountain pass where I expected to see Mt Rainier, I stopped to view some small-but-stunning alpine lakes. The awesome view that I had awaited surprised me once again. Mt. Rainier towered like the sharp teeth of some giant monster peak. She was there, but how different she looked. In the past I usually saw Mt Rainier under a clear sky; but now, when I came from the East in the late afternoon, the view was completely different. The sunshine created beams of light that shone between the branches fashioning the tunnel through which I drove. Now, seeing the mountain in open space made for nothing less than a supernatural sight. In the haze coming straight from the distant Pacific Ocean, the photons - particles of light that are slowed down in the combined atoms of hydrogen and oxygen - gave the mountain a ghostly, ethereal look.
As in all of the rest of nature, here too I saw a miracle: a miracle of shapes, lights, smells and sounds. It was an act of creation at work – by the Creator Himself.
At that moment, I thought about another miracle; A miracle that can only be seen from a 'different light.' A miracle back there in the big city – in Babylon itself.
Just a few days earlier I spent some time with my children and granddaughters in the Boro Park section of Brooklyn. Although I davened there with few minyanim alongside some Chusheve Chasidishe Rebbes, I didn’t go to ask them for a miracle - even though my life requires nothing less than that right now. I went to regenerate and recharge my spiritual batteries in my Rav’s Beis Hamedrash, and also some other places. But as always, what impressed me most in Boro Park was the view of the Yididshe gass – the Jewish street.
The kedusha – the holiness of institutions of learning and prayer that can be found on almost every block and corner are seeping out of the buildings and are detectable for a sensitive soul, even on the polluted streets of this urban jungle. In the madness of traffic and sidewalks filled with people, if you open your eyes you can still see peace and love in the faces, conversations and simple behaviors of people passing you on the street.
Yes, life in the city is stressful and fast-paced, but I don’t want to compare the Jewish residents of Bavel to some happy and perhaps less-stressed villagers. In that competition Boro Parkers would lose, since I personally prefer town life rather than city life. Still, the presence of true Torah Jews in The City; people who are devoted to self-improvement, social development and general holiness, is nothing less than a miracle.
While driving and witnessing the miracle of this 14000+ ft mountain, I was thinking about different experiences and occurrences that are even more fascinating for me than the sight of physical beauty, even given the fact that I am a nature enthusiast who truly appreciates magnificent geographical phenomena.
I was reminded of some other memories, from the same places and the same streets.
I remember going with my son to some small book store somewhere in Brooklyn, to buy some sefurim and books. While building the pile together, the salesman began speaking to us in a manner which no salesman ever should. In fact, no man should speak that way to any other human being.
I took it rather patiently, though that older Chasidic man was not talking in a manner befitting his Chasidic attire. His language was simply inappropriate for welcoming a client, especially a client who obviously intended to spend a few hundred dollars in his store. I understood that there must be something wrong with the man. But my son, who was the brunt of his bitter comments, was a bit less tolerant and certainly feeling more stressed. At one point my son gave a short speech to the salesman in his native Yiddish, and then asked me to leave the books and go. I felt for my boy as he was being humiliated for no reason, and with regret I left the sefurim and we walked out of the store.
I expressed to my son my suspicion that the salesman was perhaps suffering from some condition which caused him to act in this manner. But my son disagreed with me, clearly shaken by the whole situation.
Two blocks past the store we encountered a man who was disheveled and eccentric. There are a few men like him in the neighborhood, but each is slightly different in appearance and behavior.
This man's tzitzis (talis katan) was covered with countless flecks of dirt and splotches of food which had fallen on it. His beard and payos had obviously not been brushed for years. Even his veise zaken (white sacks) were more gray than white. He had some sheets of plastic covering him, boxes of ripped suitcases in one hand and a stick in his other hand, which he was waving while screaming to the passersby, including the two of us. He also wore Chasidic garb, but in his case there was no doubt that the man was mentally disturbed.
A few days later, when I was already back in the West; my son told me that he checked on the man in the book store to learn what could be the cause of such strange behavior. In der kleine yidishe velt (in the small Jewish World) even within the big city, it doesn’t take long to find information. My son learned with sadness that indeed the salesman was disturbed, even though he can function somewhat in society and work with people most of the time. He has some health issues which can cause the kind of erratic conduct we experienced in the store.
I thought about other possible situations, while I was driving. What if this incident had happened, not to us, but to some out-of-towners who were visiting Boro Park - a place where they would expect to see only people who are on the spiritual level of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? What if this would be someone looking to recharge his spiritual batteries, and he instead got them burned by a salesman with a bad attitude?
Would he have enough understanding for his fellow Jew who is suffering from a mental condition? Would he be able to rationalize to himself that he is not dealing with a normal situation?
I don’t know. I hope that many would weigh the circumstances with love and patience. I hope they would still see what I see every time I go back to these places of holiness. Despite the fact that we have some cases of mental illness or undeveloped middos (character traits) or even white collar criminals and other people of inappropriate conduct in the frum community, the holiness can still be detectible to the sensitive eye, on the streets of the big city.
And that is a great miracle.
Someone may ask – Why employ a man with mental problems as a salesman in their store?
Well… a yid darft parnuse (it is honorable for a Jew to work for his living). Perhaps this was the only place where some other Jew offered him occupation. Although it may not benefit the owner financially, it is a definite act of chesed (kindness). Chesed is not cost-effective – but it is compassionate.
This Yid might have ended up like the other person whom we encountered after leaving the store – on the street – had it not been for the kindness of the proprietor. So why was he employed while the other fellow remained homeless? Perhaps the stage or form of his mental condition didn't allow the street person to take even a simple job or live somewhere where he can wash and sleep in human conditions. But he is still among us, he is still us, he is still part of the holy Jewish street in the big city.
He too is part of this miracle.