The Sages (Nedarim 81a) teach, Be attentive to the
children of the poor, because from them Torah will flourish [because they
are not encumbered by other involvements (Ran)].
The word Torah literally means teaching, hence the Talmudic
phrase can be understood to mean that we should be attentive to the children of the poor, for there is much we can learn from them. In this touching story told to me by my son-in-law, Rabbi Shlomo Dovid Pfeiffer, we learn sensitivity from a poverty-stricken family.
Chezky Silverman* of Chicago was learning in a yeshivah in
Jerusalem and loving every minute of it. His chavrusas were all
Americans except for his afternoon chavrusa, Yankel Bernstein,* an
ebullient young married Yerushalmi.
Yankel and his wife had five children and although the family was
poor, his enthusiasm for life and Torah was contagious.
One Thursday afternoon Yankel invited Chezky for the Friday-night meal. Chezky delightedly accepted the invitation as he looked forward to meeting Yankels family. The Bernsteins lived in an apartment complex on
Rechov Shmuel Hanavi. Chezky had been told that the Bernsteins were poor, but he was not prepared for what he saw in their apartment. After Kiddush,
when he made Hamotzi, Yankel was cutting the challah into very thin
slices. Could the family be relying on this challah to last for all the Shabbos meals? Chezky, who came from a well-to-do home, could not bear the thought.
The meal soon became an anguished ordeal for Chezky as he saw the minuscule portions of fish, soup, and chicken Mrs. Bernstein served the children. Chezkys own portion was larger than anyone elses, and he
felt guilty, for he understood that he was getting more at the expense of the Bernsteins. Although the divrei Torah and zemiros were lively and the children certainly seemed happy, Chezky vowed he would never come there again for a meal. It just wasnt fair to Yankels family.
A few weeks later Yankel again invited Chezky for a Shabbos meal
but Chezky said he already had other plans. Again and again Yankel invited his younger chavrusa, and each time Chezky had another excuse for not coming. Finally Yankel understood that Chezkys excuses were just that --
One afternoon Yankel said directly, Ive invited you
numerous times since you came that Friday night months ago, and each time you refuse me. Did we not treat you right that first time? Were our standards of kashrus not up to yours? Did any of my children say something that upset you?
Chezky was surprised at how sensitive Yankel was to his refusals. He couldnt hide the truth any longer. Ill tell you honestly, Reb Yankel, he said. I had no idea how you and your family lived. That Friday night I couldnt help but notice there was not much food to go around the table and frankly I felt guilty eating anything because I knew it was at the expense of your wonderful children. Chezky had to hold back
his urge to cry.
Yankel put his hands on Chezkys shoulders and said, You really are considerate, but let me explain and I think youll
My wife and I come from poor families. When we were married,
we discussed the likelihood that we would live the rest of our lives below the standards of many of our friends. We decided from the start that if we were to be blessed with children, we would invite guests once in a while to teach the children the middah (trait) of hachnasas orchim (hospitality to
We dont have guests very often,
but when we do, it is to show the children that we share the Ribono Shel Olams blessings with others.
Chezky understood Reb Yankels explanation but still couldnt allow himself to eat again at Reb Yankels home. Maybe
sometime in the future he would reconsider, but not now.
As Lag BOmer approached, Chezky planned a trip north
to Miron, where thousands gather every year at the tomb of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. He mentioned it to Reb Yankel, who assured him that the trip was worthwhile. Reb Yankel said he would go along and bring his two eldest sons.
They planned to meet on Rechov Malchei Yisrael where the buses to Miron were gathering. In a festive mood, Chezky got up early and decided to surprise Yankels children. He went to a nearby makolet (grocery store), bought a few ice-cream sandwiches, and brought them to Yankels apartment. As he entered the home he called out to the children, Here,
look what I bought for you lichvod (in honor of) Lag BOmer.
The children took the ice-cream sandwiches, dutifully said their quick thank-yous, and scampered out of the apartment.
Chezky was surprised. The Bernstein children could not have been accustomed to eating ice-cream sandwiches too often, and surely it was something special to them. Why hadnt they reacted with greater
enthusiastic thanks, instead of just muttering a few words and running off?
A few minutes later, Chezky could hear rumbling up the steps.
Before he could turn around there were 15 neighborhood children in the Bernstein dining room around the table. They were each excited as they waited for the two oldest Bernstein children to come into the room.
In a moment the two Bernstein boys came to the table with the
ice-cream sandwiches and knives in their hands. With meticulous care they cut the ice-cream sandwiches into small portions and with beaming smiles handed a section to each of the children who were present. Then, in unison, the Yerushalmi children theatrically licked the white lining of ice cream frozen between the brown top-and-bottom crackers, smiling and joking as they devoured their special morning treat.
Chezky observed the scene and turned to Reb Yankel who stood
beaming at the dining room entrance. Their eyes met. There was no need for words -- they both understood. Indeed the children had absorbed the message.
* Name has been