Friday, June 30, 2017

The Carpenter’s Assistant

Recently I have been thinking about a story I heard almost three decades back, and how the moral of this story should inform our behavior today. I have not found the story anywhere in writing. The late Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Abraham Shapira, heard the story from a person who witnessed what happened, and he told it my rabbi, who told it to me.

One of the most prominent rabbinic icons of the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth century was Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan. Kagan was renowned not only for his scholarship, but for his exemplary interpersonal behavior and humility. He shied away from any formal office or appointment. Instead he and his wife ran a modest grocery store in the small Lithuanian town of Radin (now Radun, Belarus).
A portrait of Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan
The story occurred towards the end of the great man’s life, in the early 1930s when he was in his nineties. He had heard that Radin’s carpenter’s assistant had died, and he informed his household that he would be attending the funeral. He asked them to find out when the funeral was, and let him know, as he did not want to miss it.

The members of his household were perplexed. Why on earth would one of the greatest rabbis of Europe attend the funeral of one of the simple workmen of Radin? They felt that this was not a good use of the rabbi’s time, and that he should conserve his strength. They, therefore, neglected to inform him of the time of the funeral, and instead let it come and go, hoping the rabbi would just forget about the whole thing.

Eventually, the rabbi found out that he had missed the funeral, and he became terribly upset. Try as they could, the members of his household could not mollify him. They became so worried that they called on Radin’s official town rabbi, to come and speak to him. The town rabbi said, “Rabbi Israel, I don’t understand why you are so upset. The deceased was just the carpenter’s assistant!”

The great man reacted as if he had been struck by lightning. He grabbed the lapels of the town rabbi’s jacket, and said, “You don’t understand! This man’s wife became an invalid, and could not care for herself, at all. He lovingly cared for her, feeding her, dressing her, tending to her every need, for twenty-two years, until she died. Not once did he complain or say a cross word to her or anyone else about this. Do you realize the level of godliness this man reached, through this saintly behavior? I was so looking forward to the great privilege of honoring this righteous man, by attending his funeral. Now, I will never get the chance to do so!” The town’s rabbi continued to try to console Rabbi Israel, but to no avail.
The building which housed the academy founded by Rabbi Israel, at 29 Sowiecka St.
I was wondering why I had been thinking of this story lately. Then it hit me. We, today, act just like the other characters in the story. We judge people by how they seem to us outwardly. We judge the rich to be worthier than the poor. We judge those who have had great luck and fortune in life to be, literally, worth more than those who have had bad luck. We judge those who have reached high office or professional prominence to be more important than those who merely toil in the shadows in jobs we regard as lesser.

What the great rabbi teaches us, more than eighty years after his death, is, quite simply, that we need to stop doing that. A person’s worth, worthiness and importance are, well, far too important to be based on such superficial things. The true worth of a human being is to be found in how they act, how much they give of themselves, and how much they sacrifice for others. And just like in the case of the carpenter’s assistant, we often have no idea what greatness hides behind the façade of a seemingly simple person.

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