When I was in Central Europe last month with thirty of my congregants touring formerly great Jewish centers of life in Budapest, Prague and Berlin, the Holocaust was everywhere we went. Memories of the cruelty and brutality so oppressed members of our group that many of us reflected that, despite how worthwhile our tour was, we had never returned from travel feeling as demoralized, depressed and sad as we did from this trip.
Since our return I recalled an act of kindness once shown to me by one of my rabbinical school professors. It took place forty years ago, but his loving concern for me has never faded from my heart and memory. Juxtaposed to what we experienced in Central Europe, what he did for me is a stark contrast to what we witnessed in the cities of our recent travel.
One of my Talmud teachers at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles was Dr. Abraham Zygelboim (z’l). As a rabbinic student in my mid-20s, I had suffered a painful break-up with my then-girlfriend, and I was emotionally devastated. Between classes one day I needed to take a few minutes for myself, so I walked outside, sat against a wall and wept.
Out of nowhere Dr. Zygelboim approached me quietly and kissed my forehead without ever saying a word. His sweetness stays with me and will all the days of my life.
Dr. Zygelboim was a gentle man, a Polish Holocaust survivor whose brother, Szmul Zygelboim, was a political leader in the Jewish community of Warsaw before the Nazi occupation. Szmul managed to escape Poland and advocated on behalf of the persecuted Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe as powerfully as he could in the United States and Great Britain. Deeply frustrated that the allies were neglecting to stop the slaughter of the Jewish people, and as a public act of protest, Szmul set himself on fire in front of the Parliament in London on May 12, 1943.
Szmul’s brother, my teacher, never spoke to us, his students, of his experience in the Shoah or of his brother’s ultimate and courageous act of protest. But we knew of it.
Dr. Zygelboim knew Talmud, and I was lucky to learn with him. But frankly, I do not remember the specifics of any particular lesson he taught me forty years ago, though I remember the sections of Talmud we learned with him – but I do remember his kiss on my forehead.
We are, each of us, powerful beings, and we often underestimate our capacity to touch others. Indeed, how we treat others and the way we speak to them defines not only our relationships with them, but our nature and the measure of our character.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said towards the end of his life: “When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.”
It is, of course, not always easy to be kind – especially when confronted by obstinate, difficult and offensive individuals. The moralist and essayist Joseph Joubert offered this in such circumstances, “Kindness is loving people more than they deserve.”
Leo Buscaglia offers this certain truth: “Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”