We usually think that we know what’s happening in our lives, that we know what the facts are. After all, we have intelligence, eyes, ears, understanding, and more. But the truth is that Hashem runs the world and, as we are taught, “darchei Hashem nistarot” – Hashem’s ways are hidden.
Also, of course, we human beings see only a small part of a much larger picture. If we would keep these truths in mind, life would be much easier and far less painful for us, even when we have difficulties and challenges.
I’d like to share a story that seems clear and simple. I first heard it years ago in a Torah class but no one mentioned the identity of the protagonist (the religious man on the plane). I recently heard it was Rabbi Aharon Margalit, the internationally known lecturer and author of As Long As I Live. I e-mailed him to verify this and he confirmed that indeed it was he.
Rabbi Margalit was on a plane from Eretz Yisrael going abroad. Sitting next to him was a man who by appearance seemed to be a secular Jew. The two men didn’t speak to each other but when the flight attendant brought them their meals, one kosher and one not, Rabbi Margalit decided to break the silence. After all, we must love our fellow Jew as ourselves, and we are also taught that all Jews are responsible for each other.
Rabbi Margalit turned to the man and in a friendly voice informed him that his wife had packed him food for the trip – “just in case” – so he didn’t need the airline meal. “They brought me a kosher meal and I’d be more than happy to give it to you if you’d like.”
The man looked at Rabbi Margalit and, eyes burning with anger, responded, “I don’t eat kosher food.”
Rabbi Margalit wasn’t sure what the message was. He gently said to the man: “Even if you don’t usually eat kosher, you’re welcome to have this meal if you want it. It’s usually quite good.”
The man responded with even greater anger. “I told you – I don’t eat kosher! Ever!”
Rabbi Margalit was taken aback by the harshness of the man’s reply but still tried to connect with this fellow Jew. “You’re obviously very upset,” he said softly. “Is there a special reason why you deliberately avoid kosher food?”
“Yes, there absolutely is! G-d killed my wife and my only son in the Holocaust and since then I don’t want to know about Him, His Torah, or His commandments.”
Rabbi Margalit was speechless. What could he say in response to this man’s horrific personal tragedy? He wanted to say something and finally spoke from his heart. “I’m sorry…I’m terribly sorry.” And then, with deep empathy and sorrow for this overwhelmingly hurt man, he added: “I understand now your anger and your pain.”
“You don’t understand!” the man insisted. “If you’re dressed the way you are and eat kosher, then you don’t understand!”
Rabbi Margalit hadn’t gone through what this man had, but he too had known pain, as we all have. Rabbi Margalit knew better than to say anything like that to the man; at this moment words of condolence, understanding, or encouragement would only cause the grieving man more pain.
Rabbi Margalit also knew the Torah teaching about not judging others until we are in their place. And in our generation we have been told to never judge someone who went through the Holocaust. And so even though he wanted to somehow comfort or help the man, he knew that wasn’t possible now.