The wheel of life

Our Rabbis tell us that as we judge others, so shall we ourselves be judged; as we treat others, so, inevitably, shall we be treated.

Rosh Hashana table 521 (photo credit: Sivan Farag)
Rosh Hashana table 521
(photo credit: Sivan Farag)
‘Now this is a Yom Tov table!’ exulted Shalom as he threw open the door to his house. “The table set, the candles glowing, the smell of fine meats and delicacies surrounding me from all sides. What more could a man want?” Batya smiled as she greeted her husband. She had worked hard to prepare for Rosh Hashana, wanting to start the year on a good note. Though she could afford to hire help for the chores of the holiday, she insisted on doing it all herself. Whose table would it be if someone else had prepared it? Whose halla would it be if another had baked it? The taste of life, she believed, was sweeter in the doing than in the eating, and she held in high esteem the words of King David, “Happy shall you be when you partake of the fruit of your own hands.”
Shalom had his own piece of wisdom to add: “Life is truly a gift, each and every day, and it should never, ever be wasted or taken for granted. It is God’s greatest blessing and should be treated as something rare, even though it appears each day.”
The couple then sat down to eat a sumptuous meal, in celebration of the birthday of the world. It was a meal lovingly prepared, from sweet, round challa to soup with lokshen to meats and cakes and nuts and wine, all befitting a royal occasion on a glorious day.
Midway through the meal, there came a knock at the door. Through the window, Batya could see that it was a beggar, obviously come in search of something to eat on this holy day. This was not anything unusual, for poor people abounded in the town, proof positive of the biblical assurance that “the poor will never depart from this world.”
It was well-known that Shalom and Batya’s house was always open to the less fortunate. They made it a point never to turn down the needy, and insisted that the poor who came to their door eat a meal at their table with them, not leftover scraps in the back room. They fervently believed that when one gives, it must be with a full heart and a generous smile, with joy and with no shame. The neighbors had watched many times as Shalom and Batya shared their food with a fellow Jew, eager, almost, to bring some measure of happiness to a less fortunate soul.
As Batya went into the kitchen to bring out the food, Shalom got up to open the door, letting in the beggar.
Crouched low and noticeably limping, the elderly man was dirty and disheveled from head to toe. His too-long coat scraped the floor, his boots hanging limply from his feet, the laces gone and the sides open and tattered. His beard, matted and uneven, had clearly not been trimmed for some time, and an old woolen hat, its color long faded, was pulled down over his ears. His face was gaunt, thin and worn, and he looked emaciated. There was a twisted grimace on his face, a kind of half scowl and half smile, and he seemed to make a point of avoiding eye contact with his host.
As the beggar approached the holiday table and was bathed in the light from the candles, he slowly lifted his gaze from the ground. At that very moment Batya emerged from the kitchen, carrying a tray of food. A look of shock suddenly came over her and she shrieked, dropping the tray and sending the plates crashing to the floor.
The beggar, too, let out a gasp, and tears rolled down his cheek.
“What is it, Batya?” cried Shalom, running to hold his wife up in support. “It’s nothing, Shalom,” she said softly.
“I just felt faint for a moment. But now I’m all right.
I’m sorry for the commotion; I’ll just get some more plates now from the kitchen, please.”
When Batya returned, the beggar sat down to eat, lowering his face right up to the plate. In quick, ravenous gulps, he sped through his supper, gazing neither left nor right, ignoring Shalom’s good-natured attempts at conversation.
Finally, stuffing his dessert tart into his mouth, he rushed from the table. In a wink, he was out the door, gone into the night as mysteriously as he had appeared, almost as if he had never existed.
Batya was beside herself with nervousness, fidgeting with her wedding ring, clearing each dish the moment it approached being empty and escaping into the kitchen.
Then she insisted on doing the dishes by herself, without her husband’s usual help, avoiding Shalom’s perplexed gaze and bewildered countenance. Though she usually sang during this time, she now was quiet as the new moon.
FINALLY, AFTER an hour of silence, Shalom sat Batya down and firmly asked her, “What happened here tonight? Who was that man, and why are you so upset?” Batya sobbed for a moment, and then took her husband’s hand. “I told you that I was married before, many years ago, long before I met you,” she began. “When we got engaged, we agreed to leave our past behind us, and not speak of it, but now I must tell you something about my former life.”
“At first, we had a wonderful marriage. My husband was a very rich man, the owner of a great deal of real estate, and we had everything in life. Whatever I wanted was mine for the asking, and I was the envy of all my girlfriends.
Servants waited on my every need, and we entertained the elite of our city on an almost nightly basis.
“But as rich as my husband was, that was how selfish and mean-spirited to others he could be. I discovered that he thought nothing of cheating another out of his land, playing games with people’s fortunes, devising new ways to make money at their expense. He was feared for his wealth, and hated for his greed. The more I learned of his devious ways, the more disenchanted I became, the more unhappy I grew.”
“The last straw came one evening, ironically on a Rosh Hashana night. There came a knock at the door during dinner, like there was tonight, a beggar asking for food.
My husband became furious. ‘Is there no end to these intruders, these parasites?’ he raged. ‘Must I be at their beck and call at every turn, my hand eternally dispensing an answer to their sloth and ineptitude?’ And he raced to the door, with a piece of firewood in hand.’ “The poor beggar was caught by surprise, his meager entreaty met by a storm of blows. ‘Take this, you insolent laggard,’ my husband screamed, as he beat the poor man half to death. ‘Come near my door again, and you will be lucky to escape with your life!’ The bruised and bloodied visitor ran for safety, hurt and humiliated.
“On that very night, I decided once and for all that I could not remain married to such a man, no matter how wealthy and prominent he was. And so I told him I wanted a divorce. He laughed at me, thinking me insane for wanting to give up the golden lifestyle. He mocked me, claiming I would never survive without him. But he granted me the divorce, and I never saw him again. That is, until tonight, when I emerged from our kitchen.
“I could not believe at first that it was him, as awful and besmirched as he was. I barely recognized him, until I saw his eyes, and then I knew it was indeed my former husband. How far he had fallen. And how embarrassed and shaken he was, when he realized who I was, and how I had succeeded in life, despite his predictions to the contrary.
“Do you see now, my dear Shalom, why I was so overcome by emotion? Can you possibly imagine how the fortunes of life have turned, how overwhelmed I was at the realization that only God knows what our future will bring, and only God can say where we shall end up on the wheel of life?” “Yes, I can, dear Batya,” Shalom slowly replied. “I know only too well how the wheel may spin. For, you see, I was the beggar that night at your door so many years ago. I was the visitor to a strange town, looking for a friendly face but sent running away with blows to the head. And I vowed there and then that if God would be good to me and my fortunes would change for the better, that I would take special care of the poor who came to me for help. I would send them away not with blood and curses, but with full stomachs and a kind word.
“Yes, I, too, have clung to that wheel and felt its spin, just as you have. And together, we have thankfully arrived at this New Year.”
Our Rabbis tell us that as we judge others, so shall we ourselves be judged; as we treat others, so, inevitably, shall we be treated. May we all be inscribed for Life and for Peace.
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana and author of “Shammas: Stories of the Jewish Experience.”