I was sitting in my seat on Cathay Pacific, jotting down impressions on my return flight from the Canton Fair in China. One recurring thought, given my years in a mussar yeshiva, was the light-year distance that separated me from one of the great mussar luminaries of the last century, Rav Chatzkel Levenstein, zt”l the mashgiach of Mir, who spent time in China under very different circumstances. Legend has it that the saintly Rav calculated how close he could sit on the edge of his seat in the beis medrash to minimize the pleasure he derived from Olam Hazeh. Unconsciously, I shifted in my business class seat, took another sip of my gin & tonic, while testing the angle that the seat reclined into a bed, which I would be enjoying during the next 16 hours.
Spending time in a society as different as the Far East, especially China, even for a short time, expands a person’s perspective. The quiet time as the plane taxied gave me an opportunity to review what I had experienced and thought during the past week. It had been a busy time, so the peace and quiet I was now enjoying made it easy to reflect.
In the religious world, we are inundated with a plethora of messages, each telling us that the frum world is plagued with divisiveness and conflict. While this observation may be justified occasionally, we rarely acknowledge the daily occurrences that give expression to our underlying unity and cohesiveness.
In China, I witnessed this achdus and personally experienced the unique affinity that bonds all Jews regardless of stripe or external affiliation.
Shortly before my departure to Hong Kong, I injured my foot and was forced to use crutches or a wheelchair. My limited mobility gave truth to the reputation the Chinese have for being cold, uncaring and insensitive. Seeing and experiencing it first-hand is enough to shock the sensibilities of any Westerner.
I witnessed the schizophrenic mindset of their culture. In China, when a person makes a social faux pa they bow in contrite humility. However, they demonstrate no sympathy and tolerance for the needs and limitations of the handicapped. They do not offer assistance or attempt to mitigate navigational difficulties. They are oblivious and insensitive to the needs of the less fortunate.
I experienced the exact opposite in my contact with the Jews in China and Hong Kong. Both the Chabad and Sephardic communities arranged elaborate food and lodging for the hundreds of Jews attending the trade shows. One might cynically attribute this to a “financial incentive”; however, what I witnessed was true ahavas Yisroel. Payment for meals is on the honor system. Some of the food had to be smuggled into China from Hong Kong at serious risk. I experienced the sincere desire of Jews to facilitate the material and spiritual needs of their co-religionists. The organizers do not personally know any of their guests, yet they care for them in the true chesed tradition of Avrahom Avinu.
While in China, I suffered a debilitating intestinal virus. However, the demands of my business forced me to disregard any physical discomfort and continue working. At one point, I was sitting in my wheelchair (wearing my camouflaging baseball cap) taking a brief rest from the pace of the show. A bareheaded Israeli, who read the pained look on my face, brought me a bottle of water and fruit and urged me to utilize his experience to obtain business contacts. After our ten-minute conversation, he disappeared into the mass of humanity at the fair.
My Chinese aide who helped me get around did not believe the Israeli was a stranger; he was convinced I had met a relative. This happened periodically during the fair with every Jew I met.