April 14, 2024
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April 14, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Mishpatim: Stopping with Dry Goods on a Snowy Eve

It wasn’t exactly the Storm of the Century, but as snowstorms go, this wasn’t much fun. There was no “easy wind or downy flake” (with apologies to Robert Frost), just nasty precipitation. The weatherperson rarely forecasts a storm like this one correctly, but in this case, he was right on the money: snow, mixing with sleet and freezing rain, with accumulations of three to six inches.

Steve sighed as he drove to the synagogue. This was not the pretty snow of a Currier and Ives poster. This was an ugly, icy mess. Cars were swerving all over the place, and a snowdrift or black ice could be around any corner. And as the night went on and the temperature dropped, it would just get worse.

A few cars were already parked at the door to the storage room at the basement level of the shul. Men and women were carrying out large cardboard boxes of food to deliver. It was a Wednesday night ritual in Teaneck. The Tomchei Shabbos volunteers delivered food all over the area to the less fortunate so they could have a nice Shabbat meal. The packages contained challah, frozen chicken, vegetables, assorted baked goods, and whatever other food products had been donated that week. Volunteers nodded to each other as they hauled their boxes back to their snow covered cars. Some were still in suits, ties, and dress shoes, having come straight from work, but the smart ones had changed into their snow gear before starting on their rounds. Steve looked like an advertisement for the LL Bean catalogue. Snow boots, a heavy goose-down winter jacket, ski gloves, and a Yankee cap. He was good to go.

Every box had a route number written on the side, sending the driver to a particular town in Bergen County. Many routes were local, like Teaneck, Englewood, or Hackensack, but some were distant, like Woodcliff Lake or Old Tappan. Steve once spoke to a driver who went all the way to Secaucus. The Meadowlands! Now that was far. He admired that man’s dedication.

Steve had been driving for Tomchei Shabbos for two years. His route was number 41, which took him to Fort Lee and Edgewater. In between the high rise buildings on the shores of the Hudson River were small garden apartments and older houses. Most of Steve’s deliveries were to older Russian Jews. His route had changed somewhat over the last two years, but the one constant was Mrs. Z.

Mrs. Z. lived in a second floor walkup about a quarter of a mile from the George Washington Bridge. She was a short, stocky woman in her late 70’s who didn’t speak a word of English, but always managed a big wry smile for Steve or a big hug for his children if he brought them along.

Her television was always on a Russian language station that was set way too loud, and Steve had to bang hard on her door to get her to open it. She would speak to him in Russian as if he should understand and then would stare at him blankly when he didn’t respond. But there was always that smile.

Steve drove down Route 4 that snowy eve at around 20 miles per hour. He took the ramp up to Lemoine Avenue at about 5 MPH, but he had to press down hard on the accelerator and spin the wheels of his trusty Volvo to make it into Fort Lee. The local roads were a disaster, but he navigated the unplowed side streets with aplomb and managed to find a space directly in front of Mrs. Z.’s apartment complex, a rarity. He trudged across the courtyard with the box in his arms, wincing at the windswept sleet blowing in his face. “I sure hope God is watching,” he muttered under his breath.

What makes someone work this hard to do a mitzvah? Once, while crossing this courtyard in a torrential downpour, Steve came across a skunk standing five feet in front of him and stood motionless in his galoshes, water dripping off the tip of his nose, for over five minutes until the animal eventually moved on. His wife laughed for an hour when he told her.

What is the scriptural source for helping the needy in your own neighborhood first? Many believe it is in Parshat Mishpatim, but the pasuk cited does not discuss charity; it deals with giving loans. Im kesef talveh et ami, et he’ani imach, lo tihiyeh lo kinosheh, lo tisimun alav neshech. If you lend my people money, the poor man with you, you shall not behave towards him as a creditor; you shall not charge him interest. Along with the precepts of interest free loans, this sentence teaches us that it is better to loan a poor person money than to give him charity. It also teaches that you must tend to the ani imach, the poor person with you—in other words, your local poor—first. (Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Shemot, Haomanim Press, page 404.) And so, Steve trudges across the courtyard on a freezing night to help the needy of Bergen County. It’s just the way things are done.

The buzzer at the front door of Mrs. Z.’s apartment never works, so Steve pestered the super until he gave him a key to the building. Steve climbs the stairs, cradling the soggy box in his arms. Steve pounds on Mrs. Z.’s door with his balled up fist in his glove. It takes a minute, but finally the lock turns and the door opens.

“Hi, Mrs. Z.”

She smiles.

Steve carries the box into the kitchen. He puts it on her table and makes for the door.

“Spaciba stovy prichodili kogola snezt.”

He smiles back at Mrs. Z.

“Ocen choroshiy celovek,” she says, pinching his cheek.

Steve closes the door behind him. Two more deliveries and he can go home and take a hot bath. He thinks of a story he heard as a kid about the Ba’al Shem Tov, the great Hasidic master, sneaking out just before Yom Kippur in peasant’s clothing to anonymously chop wood for an old woman in need in his town. It was probably pretty cold and snowy in Medzhybizh, where the BeSHT lived, even in October. This trek to Fort Lee? This was nothing. Steve smiled and pulled the Yankee cap low over his face as he crossed the snowy courtyard toward his car on one of the darkest evenings of the year. And there’s no way the Ba’al Shem Tov’s horse had heated seats like his Volvo. Steve was on top of the world.

Larry Stiefel is a pediatrician at Tenafly Pediatrics. He is the author of the parsha story blog Themaggidofbergenfield.com

By Larry Stiefel

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