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September 4, 2015 / 20 Elul, 5775
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Gratitude


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He sat in his prison cell sulking.  I’ll call him Steven. Time was playing tricks on him.

It seemed like only yesterday, but at the same time like a lifetime ago, that he was married to a wonderful woman and had children who were the joy of his life.  He had a high-powered job on Wall Street and luxuries that the average person couldn’t imagine.

But now, he was sitting on a hard chair in a dank cell, and he knew all too well how he had lost everything. Being rich hadn’t been enough. He had needed to be richer, and he did a fine job of that until he was caught doing illegal insider trading. He was convicted and sent to jail for a number of years.

Soon after his imprisonment, his wife divorced him, and he hadn’t seen her or his children since.

One day, which seemed like every other day full of listlessness and sadness, Steven had a visitor.  A young rabbi – I’ll call him Reuven – had been assigned to that prison for a three-month internship. Although Steven was far removed from his Jewish roots, he was not averse to Reuven’s visit. When you hit bottom, any friendly face is a lifeline.

On his first visit, Reuven chatted with Steven, nothing about Judaism, a lot about Steven. On his second visit, Reuven interjected some words of hope, drawing on Jewish sources. Steven took some solace in this, and in subsequent visits, they continued to share basic human interaction with more and more of Judaism being thrown into the mix.

Reuven and Steven got to know each other as people, and Steven looked forward to the visits. They even learned a little Torah, which was the first activity of this kind for Steven in years.

Then came the day when Reuven had to tell Steven he was leaving. He was going to his next internship in his preparation for being a community rabbi. Steven took the news relatively well and thanked Reuven for all he had done on his behalf. They wished each other all the best and then went their separate ways.

Ten years later, Reuven was walking down a Manhattan street when he came upon a man who looked vaguely familiar. Then he realized that it was Steven who was far removed from his prison garb. He was wearing an expensive suit, was immaculately groomed, and carrying a briefcase. But that wasn’t the most notable change. Steven had a beard and was wearing a yarmulke!

The two men shook hands warmly, each one happy to be in the other’s presence. The rabbi asked Steven what had happened since their last meeting. Steven replied that he had so enjoyed the meetings with Reuven, that his thirst for Torah knowledge had been awoken. When the next rabbi came in, they learned on a regular basis, and in a matter of months, Steven started taking on the lifestyle – in small increments – of a religious Jew.  When he got out of a jail a few years later, he was an observant Jew.

“I got a job,” Reuven said, “and in time, I was able to start my own business.  I met a nice religious woman and we got married and have two children.”

“I’m very happy for you,” said the rabbi.

“What’s new with you?” asked Steven.

Reuven told him that he was leaving the next morning on a trip to Israel with his family.

“Enjoy,” said Steven.

The rabbi added that there was a custom of putting notes into the Kotel, a form of communication with Hashem.  “You can make requests for things you need,” said the rabbi.  “Would you like me to put in a note for you?”

“Most definitely,” said Steven.

“Let me get out my pad and paper,” said the rabbi.  “I don’t want to forget what you want to say.”

And there, standing on a bustling Manhattan street, the rabbi, with pen poised on paper, asked the former prisoner what he wanted to write to Hashem.

“Thank you,” was all Steven said.

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