Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach of blessed memory used to tell the story of a man on a quest for holiness. As he entered the hallowed synagogue, he noticed the austere rabbi of the congregation sitting in the front row, deep in prayer and supplication.
“Is this an example of total holiness?” he asked. Yes, it could be, the answer came, but in this case it is not.
As he continued his search, he noticed a man adorned in very fine clothes, deep in Torah thought. Surely he must be one of the leaders of the Jewish community.
“Is this an example of ultimate holiness?” he asked.
And the response came again: It could be, but in this case it is not.
Interspersed in his story, Shlomo would sing the words, “You never know, you never know, you never know, you never know….”
But just then, Shlomo continued the story, the person in search of holiness saw an old, poor, suffering man with tears in his eyes as he recited the holy words of the Psalms. The pages of his prayer book were drenched from his crying and weeping.
Again the question reverberated: “Is this an example of pure holiness?” And the response was definitive: “Yes, this is an example of true kedusha.”
Often we look at a person or an event and we are convinced that this is the highest level of sainthood and godliness, not realizing that G-d seeks what is in the hearts and souls of humankind and not their outward appearance.
The Talmud in Tractate Ta’anit tells the story of Rabbi Broka from the city of Chazoi who frequented the marketplace of Bei Lefet where Elijah the Prophet was known to appear. One day when Elijah appeared, Rabbi Broka asked him, “Is there anyone in this marketplace who will receive a share in the World to Come?”
One would expect that Elijah would have sought out a person who was a holy rabbi or in the forefront of the Jewish community or who gave the most tzedakah. In the end Elijah chose someone dressed as a non-Jew. This man’s job was to save young Jewish girls from being violated when taken into captivity. He would notify the rabbis and urge them to pray and take action to affect the girls’ release.
The Talmud continues that Elijah chose two other people as well. When Rabbi Broka asked what they did to deserve such a lofty reward, he responded that they made people laugh. No extra shuckling during their davening, no long recitation of the Shmoneh Esrei, not even learning Torah for long hours into the night – just making people happy. This is what earned them a share in the World to Come.
I remember years ago when I had to undergo surgery and realized, as one inevitably does, that the surgery itself is much less challenging than the recuperation afterward. Hours of pain and discomfort and sleepless nights make this time difficult and very agonizing. During recovery, even the most menial tasks become challenging.
The best way to survive such an event in your life is to have a “support staff” in your room so that they can help you and comfort you during this trying time. I was lucky to have had present at my side my wonderful wife, Dvora, who tended to my every need to make my stay in the hospital as bearable as possible. But I also had the services of two non-Jewish nurses whose compassion and concern, empathy and professionalism allowed me to cope with this very difficult and painful time in my life.
At one point, the evening before the beginning of the onset of Shabbat, one of the nurses approached me and asked how I was feeling. When I responded that given the situation I was feeling fine, she responded that had I said that I wasn’t feeling well, she was prepared to stay the entire night to guarantee that I would receive the best of care.
It was then that the words of my friend Reb Shlomo reverberated in my ears: “You never know, you never know.” And I recalled the incident quoted in Tractate Ta’anit and the statement by Elijah the Prophet about who is designated to receive a share in the World to Come.
Had Elijah been standing near me at that time, and had I asked him was anyone present worthy to receive a share in the World to Come, he would have pointed definitively at these nurses and would have proclaimed that they were deserving of such a reward.
You see, only G-d judges people. And in G-d’s eyes all people who do kindness – Jews or non-Jews – are worthy of the great reward of a share in the World to Come.