Respecting Each Other in the Face of Our Uncertain World

A long time ago I heard the following story. After WWI, all of Europe’s spirit was broken. The
casualties were immense. The work of reconstruction was enormous. In the midst of
destruction, people were still trying to live their lives.

In a remote shtetl, a Hassidic Rabbi continued to work hard for his congregation. The
congregation also had a shamesh, a Jewish caretaker. This shamesh would continually surprise
the Rabbi with his comments. If the Rabbi asked the shamesh what was the noise he was
hearing, when the wind was howling outside, the shamesh would say that the spirits were
dancing outside. If the Rabbi asked the shamesh where the children were, the man would
answer that they had gone to the Garden of Eden, when they were actually playing in the
Synagogue’s backyard. At other times, the shamesh would not speak because he thought that
his words had magical powers and would destroy everything around him. Everyone, including
the Rabbi, seemed to be amused by the magical thinking of this man, and included him in the
congregation’s loving embrace.

However, these were difficult times, filled with fear, and the ugly specter of anti-Judaism
hovered over this congregation. Reports started coming to this shtetl about the Nazi party’s
ascent to power in Germany, and their very anti-Jewish stances. Some members of the
congregation felt that this was not a threat, that this was no different than the pogroms they had
always experienced. Some members of the congregation felt that this was absolutely a threat,
that the future of the Jews was definitely endangered. On a beautiful summer evening, the two
groups came together for a special meeting, in order to decide what would be the future of the
congregation. Some wanted to leave their shtetl immediately. Some wanted to stay and weather
whatever storm they would experience. Tempers rose, and angry words were shared between
members of the congregation. The Rabbi felt powerless, and most of all, he felt lost. He did not
know how to advise the congregation. As the evening grew, and a fight was about to break out,
a loud crash came from outside the Synagogue. Silence fell over the whole congregation. Fear
overtook the assembly. The rabbi asked the shamesh to go outside and see what had
happened. The shamesh came back and reported that the old tree at the edge of their property
had fallen, and one could even see the roots! Immediately, a sense of relief washed over the
whole congregation. Oh, it was just the old tree! That tree was about to fall anyway. It was a
blessing from God that no one had gotten hurt, they all said. The Rabbi silenced his
Congregation. He said: “We must go, immediately. We need to leave our shtetl, with no further

The whole congregation was flabbergasted. Some were saying, “Rabbi, what took you so long
to come to our side?”, while others remarked, “Rabbi, why are you following what these people
are saying?” The Rabbi spoke: “My friends, if our shamesh would come back and say that he
saw a giant removing the tree by its roots, or any other grand vision, I would feel differently. Yet
we are here, trying to figure out if this threat is real or not, and our shamesh, who has his
special way of seeing reality, was being completely reasonable, even lucid. This is very different
from the reality we have always known. We must leave, immediately.”
The whole Congregation followed the Rabbi, and they moved to the New World. They did not
sustain the losses they would have if they stayed in Eastern Europe. Thanks to this Rabbi, and
the ability to see that when the madman was lucid, it was a sign of impending disaster, his
community was spared.

I bring you this story as we now live in difficult times, full of hatred, without any reason. To be
truthful, the world in which we live has never experienced complete peace. The world can be a
scary place, and since the beginning of times we have had reason to be afraid, and to try to
move. In light of the horrible events in Paris, and the attacks of the Islamic State and Al-Quaeda
throughout Europe, we do not know what to do. Some of us seem to be certain of what will
happen soon to the Jewish people, in Europe, in Israel, in South America, in the United States.
The fact is that I cannot tell you exactly what will happen, and what the future holds. All I can do
is conjecture. And we do not have the barometer of a madman who all of a sudden becomes
lucid. The reality is that these are difficult, confusing times, and we are not clear on what we
should do.

Yet one thing is clear to me; in the absence of a madman, we must listen intently to each other
and respect each other’s fears and opinions. Only when we are together, only when we show
respect to our fellow people, will we be able to truly combat those who want to destroy us.

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