For a good number of years, it has been my custom to send out a letter or greeting to all of you before Shabbos, and this past week may have been the first week that I was unable to do so. This is because I was sick most of the week; in fact, I wasn’t even at home for part of the week. The problem started about ten days ago with a heavy rain storm which caused a flood in my ground floor apartment in Bayit Vegan, Jerusalem. There is a courtyard between my building and the next building, and the drainage pipe in this courtyard got clogged up. As a result, the water came into the area just before my door and started entering my apartment!
I am blessed with good neighbors in my building. They send me food if I am ever ill, and they are helpful to me in many ways. My neighbors, however, were not home when this flood started, so I called one of the families in Bayit Vegan that I am close to – Rav Shlomo Zalman Shapiro and family. His wife, Rebbitzen Adina Shapiro, is a daughter of my rebbe, Rav Aharon Feldman, the Rosh Yeshiva of Ner Yisrael in Baltimore. Rebbetzen Shapiro sent over her two young sons who were at home when I called, Shmuel (age 12) and Elchanan (age 10). In addition, I called my dear friend, Yosef Chaim Goldenberg, who lives in Givat Shaul, Jerusalem, a neighborhood which is not far from Bayit Vegan, and which like Bayit Vegan, is located on the edge of the forest in the west of Jerusalem. Both Bayit Vegan and Givat Shaul are Torah-committed neighborhoods. Yosef Chaim and the two boys worked hard to take out the water, and they managed to keep the flood from spreading through my apartment. I had also tried to reach a neighborhood plumber, but he could not be found. Another plumber came later that rainy night and worked to clean out the pipe. At first, it seemed that he succeeded, but a lighter version of the problem started again. Eventually, the water stopped.
I have an internal disability which causes my immune system to be weak, and due to the flood and resulting dampness – together with the cold draft coming into the apartment when the door had to be opened – I became ill with a fever, combined with laryngitis. The fever started at the onset of Shabbos.
Early Sunday morning, another plumber came to work on the pipe, and he discovered that the pipe had complicated problems which could not easily be fixed. There was more rain that Sunday, and one of my neighbors came to help me when the flood started again.
With the arrival of evening, I thought the flooding was finally over, but around midnight there was more heavy rain, and the flood started to enter my apartment again! Rav Shlomo Zalman Shapiro and two of his older sons, Naftali and Eliyahu, came to help with the new emergency, and Yosef Chaim also came. They managed to get the water out of my apartment, but the rain was continuing, and there was still some water gathering again near my door. Rav Shlomo Zalman invited me to come to their home, especially since I was sick, and I decided to accept his warm and caring invitation. His son, Naftoli, gave me his room, and Natftoli moved in with one of his brothers. All the members of this large family gave me tender loving care in their home for the next four days, and the “menu” included delicious and healthy soups which contributed to my healing. Each day, Rav Shlomo Zalman was in touch with the neighbors in my building, and various experts were consulted about the complicated problem which caused the flood. Rav Shlomo Zalman himself came up with an excellent approach to fixing the problem which would be faster and also less expensive.
Towards the end of the week, my fever was gone, the rain stopped, and the weather was sunny and warmer. I therefore decided to go home, and baruch Hashem – blessed be Hashem – the apartment was dry and there was no damage. It was too late, however, to send out a proper mailing to all of you before Shabbos.
During Shabbos, I ate my meals by Rav Gavriel Yosef Levi and family. Rebbitzen Levi is another daughter of my rebbe, Rav Aharon Feldman. The meals in their warm and caring home were another reminder that I have “extended family” in Bayit Vegan.
I have started to write this letter Saturday night, and there was some unexpected light rain this Shabbos afternoon and Saturday night. Baruch Hashem, my apartment is still dry, and I hope the problem will be fixed this Sunday, with the help of Hashem. If there is no rain, a new pipe will be installed. One of my neighbors just came to my door to bring me hot food and some homemade gefilte fish.
I had a very challenging week due to the flooding and illness, and there were periods when I felt that I was in real danger, especially with my fragile immune system. What saved me was the sheltering “ark” that Hashem prepared for me. This was the “ark” of loving-kindness. Yes, I was sheltered by the loving-kindness of some special souls in my special neighborhood.
When my parents were growing up in New York City, they lived in Jewish neighborhoods where the majority of the residents looked out for each other and cared for each other. This sense of communal caring also existed to some degree in most other neighborhoods of New York City. In recent decades, however, many Americans found themselves living in neighborhoods which had become engulfed by a sea of social selfishness – a society where the emphasis is on personal gratification, leading to a loss of communal bonds.
The loss of communal bonds and the resulting loneliness has become a very serious social problem within much of American society, and there have been many articles in the media about this problem. A major cause of this problem is the loss of certain traditional and altruistic values. For example, in the era of my grandparents, many people – Jews and non-Jews – believed that there were certain sacred and absolute biblical-based values which called upon each person to be concerned about their neighbors. In our era, there are many people who are not committed to these values, for in recent decades, there has been a growing emphasis on “moral relativism” – a philosophy which encourages human beings to be their own gods and choose their own values. According to this philosophy, there are no higher, absolute values which obligate human beings to care for others; thus, people feel free to choose selfish values which also lead to increased greed and decadence. This philosophy has therefore contributed to the decline of community feeling in much of modern western society. This decline of community feeling is also found in a number of secular urban and suburban neighborhoods in Israel, where the residents seek to follow all the current values of western society.
Within this sea of social selfishness, I found a sheltering ark, for I moved into the chareidi neighborhood of Bayit Vegan, where the majority of the residents look out for their neighbors and care for them. Caring and loving attention is also given to the needs of the elderly in my neighborhood. The basic atmosphere of my neighborhood is one of caring and loving-kindness; moreover, there are some families and individuals that have reached a very high spiritual level of caring and loving-kindness. My neighborhood, together with other chareidi neighborhoods, sponsor social service projects which also benefit people outside our own communities. One of the more well-known projects is the chareidi-sponsored Yad Sarah organization which involves volunteers from all segments of Israeli society. Even some of the anti-religious newspapers in Israel have occasionally acknowledged that the chareidi neighborhoods excel in sponsoring diverse grassroots projects of loving-kindness which benefit all segments of Israel’s population.
It is well-known that people in chareidei and other Torah-committed neighborhoods invite “strangers” into their homes on each Shabbos and Festival. The guests include students, travelers, new immigrants, spiritual seekers, or anyone in need of food and warm company. One can therefore usually find in a Torah-committed neighborhood a sheltering “ark” of loving-kindness in the midst of the sea of selfishness which has engulfed much of modern society.
It was this “ark” of loving-kindness which saved me during my crisis this past week. I am therefore especially grateful to Hashem for giving us the Torah, the life-giving Divine Teaching, for this ark of loving-kindness is based on the sacred and absolute values of this life-giving Divine Teaching.
May Hashem help each member of the Family of Israel to find shelter in a Torah ark of loving-kindness. And may Hashem help all human beings to discover the universal and absolute ethical values of the Torah which will enable them to develop sheltering arks of loving-kindness. These arks of loving-kindness are especially needed during this dangerous and difficult period when we are experiencing the difficult birth pangs of the approaching messianic age.
When the messianic age will be born, “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of Hashem, as water covering the sea bed.” (Isaiah 11:9). In this new age, we will no longer be surrounded by a sea of social selfishness; instead we will be surrounded by a sea of social caring inspired by the teachings of Hashem, the Compassionate and Life-Giving One.
Love and Shalom,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen