| Second Thoughts |

The Chair and I

The power of chesed to change attitudes



You never know what you might discover just by going to shul.

One recent Shabbos morning, I went to a shul I normally do not attend. When I arrived, the doors were locked and a small knot of people had gathered outside waiting for someone to appear and let us in. As we stood there, my normally aching back began aching even more. One of those waiting, a total stranger, must have noticed my discomfort, so he clambered up a flight of stairs at the rear of the shul, found a chair, and schlepped it down to me. A moment later someone arrived with the key, so my benefactor took my chair and dragged it  back up the stairs. However, even with the key, the doors still would not budge. We would have to wait for the late-coming gabbai. Without hesitation, my new helper hurried back up the stairs and once again, with a smile, brought the chair back down. Five minutes later the gabbai showed up, the doors finally opened, and as we all filed into shul my new friend again hauled my chair up the stairs. I have no idea who this person was, nor did he know me, but he definitely fulfilled the mitzvah of doing chesed, and I so told him.

The davening began, but it was not very uplifting. The davening leader, the baal tefillah, far from helping my kavanah and focus, was doing just the reverse. Instead of setting a reasonable pace, he paused and waited interminably between paragraphs. Instead of leading the congregation, the congregation waited endlessly for him to continue. Nor was he content simply to recite the words and move forward; he seemed reluctant to let any word go. All of which might have been a manifestation of deep kavanah, but it was kavanah at the expense of the congregation, because the entire rhythm and cadence of the davening was out of kilter. While the all-too common “speed davening” destroys kavanah, the ultra-slow opposite extreme can also have a negative kavanah effect. To add to my distress, whatever chants and melodies he tried to lead were all slightly off tune.

I tried very hard to focus on the words, to keep in mind to Whom I was davening, but my frustration lingered on. I was not a happy davener. Worse, I was unhappy with myself for being unhappy with a baal tefillah who took his time, did not rush, and was probably focused intently on the text. This davening was a challenge, and I was failing the challenge.

At one point during Shacharis, his tallis slid back, and I caught a glimpse of him. I recognized him immediately. The source of my annoyance, the author of my discontent, was my ministering angel, the savior of my back, the provider of my chair.

And then something curious took place. My irritation began to evaporate; he no longer annoyed me. He was now transmogrified into a fine baal tefillah. His lingering over every syllable showed deep love for G-d, the long pauses indicated his concentration and were uplifting, his voice was now quite pleasant.

Later that Shabbos, I reflected: How could that which was disagreeable a moment before become a source of pleasure a moment later? Does being nice to me change reality? How capricious of me!

But more than caprice was involved here. Rather, this demonstrated the power of chesed to change attitudes. One cannot resent someone who is kind to him, or remain annoyed or angry at someone who cares for him. No wonder the Sages consider gemilus chasadim as one of the three pillars of the world — the other two being Torah and worship of G-d. (Avos 1:2). This is because doing chesed transforms potential beasts into civilized human beings, and turns them —us —into menschen who care for one another. Chesed is thus a pillar of society. The Sages do not exaggerate when they declare that it is actually the equivalent of worship. That Shabbos morning showed that chesed changes people.

Question: What is the ultimate source of chesed in the world? Answer: G-d Himself — for so we say thrice daily in the Amidah: G-d is gomel chasadim… the doer of chesed. And among the 13 attributes of G-d, chesed is mentioned twice (Shemos 34:7). For it is He Who provides us with everything that matters, especially life itself. By engaging in kindness and consideration for others, we become partners with the ultimate Gomel Chasadim: We create better human beings and we help preserve the world.

May your new year be filled with chesed, because you never know what you can accomplish just by schlepping a chair.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 876)

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