Is it just me? Maybe it’s the aging factor. The shorter days perhaps? Somehow by the time the day is done there is still so much left to do. This nagging sensation becomes even more acute right before the end of the year when you know you’ll soon need to give a din v’cheshbon and will, in all likelihood, come up short.
I had a day like that during the week preceding Rosh Hashanah. To begin with, I’d been fighting a lingering, annoying cough, the residue of a nasty cold. Since I did not wish to impose my misery on anyone else, I kept a low profile. The Satmar Bikur Cholim invitation to their annual summer event, eagerly anticipated by many, went unheeded. I was in no mood to attend.
In all honesty, for the most part I don’t really enjoy a crowd, and am happier when I can just drop my contribution in the mail. But I hadn’t accomplished even that much this time around. So on a balmy, sunshiny mid-September Wednesday, just four days prior to the start of the New Year, I decided I would catch up on things.
First on the agenda was to find the invitation and prepare the return envelope for mailing. I also had some errands to run in town and considered that with Yom Tov around the corner, I’d try to get in some personal shopping.
Then again, due to my sniffles it had been a while since I’d visited an ailing, elderly cousin residing in a local assisted living complex. Going there, however, would mean taking a detour away from the popular shopping district.
After some shuffling through my desk clutter, I came across the Bikur Cholim invitation, made out a check and prepared to leave – though I was still undecided about where I was headed. Once behind the wheel, I had less than half a mile’s drive before I’d be forced to choose: a right turn on Viola (for the visit) or onward along Route 306 (for some shopping).
As I approached the light where I’d need to veer off the straight and narrow, I made up my mind: mitzvah first. I knew that if I went browsing, the visit would inevitably be placed on hold for at least another day.
At the previous stop sign the brakes of my trusted old Chevy Lumina didn’t have the usual feel; I had to exert more pressure to come to a complete stop. It didn’t worry me much, as I was only about five minutes away from my destination. Besides, the brake pads had worn in the past and replacing them had not, to the best of my recollection, amounted to a do-or-die emergency.
The speed limit was 30 miles an hour and I was doing a comfortable 35, keeping pace with the few cars on the road. Since I’d soon be taking a left at the approaching four-way intersection, I tapped my brakes in order to slow down. At least I thought I did. But I may as well have stepped on air. There were no brakes.
I was literally trapped in a runaway car and had a split second’s decision to make: I could either helplessly crash into the cars ahead of me, or, since I wasn’t tailgating, maybe just run the light at the intersection with a strong possibility of ramming cross-traffic vehicles. In the best-case scenario, the car would take flight down a winding road to G-d knows where.
Like I said, I had to act quickly. I knew that the scene to my right consisted of some neat one-family homes with front gardens, driveways and shrubbery. I instinctively bet on taking a sharp right and chancing on crashing a fence or whatever else would get in my way, rather than careening to nowheresville and possibly causing injury to other drivers along my involuntary excursion.
I steeled myself for what was to come and held fast onto my steering wheel with both hands. It was like riding a go-cart in reckless mode, as the car jostled and collided with various obstacles, including a tree that I glimpsed through my windshield getting knocked over like an opponent in a boxing ring. Thankfully it was only mere seconds before the car came to a complete stop.
I sat there unmoving, as the surrealism of it all washed over me. I expected to be momentarily converged upon by the occupants of the home whose property I had so rudely invaded, but nothing happened. No one stirred. Even the car’s rearview mirror reflected a peaceful calm. I was eerily alone.
The air in the car’s interior was stifling. I pushed the car door open and went out to check on my surroundings and the devastation I had wrought. Apparently I had entered at a slant between two driveways and had hit a neat little garden bordering the driveway of the home to my left. A strategically placed large dome of a rock had twisted the right rear wheel of my car at a grotesque angle, the front wheels coming to a rest amid a disarray of bricks that were disturbed from their originally neat circular pattern.
The tree I had so flippantly sent flying was of an exotic specimen and had an exceptionally thin bark. It looked to have stood about ten feet tall before its sudden demise. Needle-like fronds shaken loose from its branches were strewn about the driveway’s surface.
All at once I caught sight of the neighbor walking up her driveway and seized on the opportunity to find out whose house I had encroached on. The young woman was oblivious to the newest development that had just unfolded in such close proximity to her residence, but upon sizing up the scenario, with my input, she assured me that the owners were nice working people – who availed themselves to their neighbors as “Shabbos Goy” when needed – and wouldn’t be home until evening.
While I awaited the tow truck that would haul my disabled vehicle away, I scribbled a note detailing the circumstances of my impromptu drop-in. I signed my name, left my home phone number and placed the small sheet of paper where I knew the homeowners wouldn’t miss it.
As I looked around, I noticed a storage barn situated at the end of the driveway. Had I cleared the periphery and accessed the driveway clean, I’d have crashed into that barn and in all probability wreaked more serious damage. To boot, this was the last house on this stretch of thruway before the intersection. Had I reacted a second later, I’d have missed my buffer.
Moreover miraculous was my last-minute resolve not to head into town to shop. The road in that direction is lined with door-to-door condominiums where little children are always seen darting in and out and playing outdoors. I shudder at the thought of the options I would have been faced with.
Suffice it to say that nothing occurs by happenstance and that a malach had steered me at the right second into the safest environment to cushion my landing. No, I don’t consider myself to be this great deserving-of-a-miracle individual — far from it. But does it not famously say in Mishlei, tzedakah tatzil mimaves (charity saves one from death)? The last act I had performed earlier that day, before embarking on my fateful encounter…
But wait, it gets better. That same night I received a call from the people whose wrath I had so dreaded. I braced myself for the lecture that would surely be forthcoming, of how I had damaged their property and how much it would cost to clean up and replace the tree, etc.
Instead, I heard a kindly woman’s voice anxiously inquiring about the state of my wellbeing. When I expressed my regret at the mess I had left behind and the tree that had been uprooted, she was incredibly reassuring and insisted that I had not inconvenienced them at all. “In fact,” she added, “I’ve been complaining forever about this tree that obstructs my view each time I exit my driveway. You actually did me a big favor by getting rid of it for me.”
The day had been an emotionally draining one, to put it mildly, but it was only now that I felt myself tearing up. What a beautiful gesture from a wonderful human being, and what a powerful lesson – among others of this day – for all of us to take to heart.
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