I had one of those “a-ha!” moments this past weekend.
Standing around a table at a rabbi’s house, his active and giggling children running around the house, waiting for the guest of honor to arrive. We are surprising her with this Shabbat dinner, a multi-course home cooked meal with endless wine, handcrafted menus, and infinite amounts of love that was painstakingly put together by her friends. This evening would be bittersweet, but we were doing our best to drown out the bitter.
This was my first Shabbat dinner in…well, as long as I can remember. My family, while very culturally Jewish, was never particularly religious. But, this dinner wasn’t about the ritual, but more about the feeling, about the understanding, and about the love that we felt for our guest of honor.
We hid quietly in corners, the children peeking through the curtain to see if she was going to arrive. Of course, her lateness was partially caused by me, forcing my roommate who was escorting her to stall because I was running late, getting into the only taxi cab in Boston where the driver had no idea how to get his way around the city. Murphy’s law strikes again.
But, if anything, the suspense of whether this whole shindig would go as planned added to the feeling of accomplishment when the success was imminent. We were so invested in getting everything just perfect for her, biting our nails, getting lost with less-than-fluent taxi drivers, lying through our teeth when she asks us why we are all dressed up (“Kortney, why are you dressed up?” “Oh, I’m going out to dinner with my mom.” “Gabie, you’re dressed up, too??” “Uh, well…Kortney was dressing up, so I didn’t want her to feel alone…”). We went through such great lengths for someone else without even thinking about it.
And then Shayna, our guest of honor, walked through the door with a dumbfounded look on her face as every white lie and odd reaction we had thrown her way the past couple of days came together. Click. And it was all worth it. She couldn’t believe that we did this for her and we couldn’t believe that we pulled it off.
We stood around the table and I was lucky enough to sit by Shayna’s side as we sung through the prayers, walking through the beautiful rituals of sharing the warm challah bread, washing our hands, twice on the right, twice on the left. I had front row seats to watch the wide-eyed happiness on her face as she had the friends that loved her most surrounding her on this Friday night. I hid my smug smile behind the prayer book we were reading – we did it and I couldn’t be happier to have done this for her.
It wasn’t until later when the rabbi wrapped up the dinner with a small teaching from last week’s Torah portion that I really saw the bigger picture of the night. He told us of Bikur cholim, or the mitvah of visiting and extending aid to the sick. It told the story of Abraham’s circumcision, how God visited him as he sat at the entrance of his tent during the hottest part of the day on the third and most painful day of his recovery, waiting to see if any passersby would like to come in to escape the heat and have some refreshments. Abraham, while being sick, was not being selfish and worrying about his own pain, but continuing to ask, “How can I help?”
This story could not have come through at more of a perfect time. Shayna, who is unfortunately taking a leave of absence for medical reasons, never allowed her sickness to stop her from asking how she could help. While the typical response to a situation like this would be tears and friends supporting her, Shayna has been the rock for the rest of us, devastated by her departure. She never stopped being a good friend, asking how our days went, despite how mundane they might be. Her optimism in the situation, her strength, and honest-to-goodness huge heart have opened the eyes of everyone around her. I admire her for this.
I think that night, as all of us girls sitting with eyes welled up as the rabbi detailed the story to us, his devoted audience, our minds were opened to how some things are bigger than us. Things go wrong, sometimes there are unexpected bumps in the road, and sometimes we have to go through something difficult but one thing remains. We grow, we understand, and we move on.
In situations like this, you are opened to the people who really matter to you. In the moment directly following Shayna’s announcement that she was leaving school to her group of friends, we all mobilized to do something for her. “How can we help, how can we make this better?”
I think selflessness is the most genuine when you don’t even realize you are doing it. It is the most genuine when it is the first response to a crisis and your biggest concern is to how to help, rather than how you will cope.
In times like these, you see who really cares about you the most and, possibly even more importantly, you begin to realize who you care about most. Sometimes it takes misfortune to bring about clarity.
This post is dedicated to my wonderful friend, Shayna Leeds, to whom I hope a speedy and easy recovery. While things might look bleak for the near future, you are surrounded by people who will heal your heart as you heal your body.