In the presence of the Shechinah
A few weeks before Pesach, I tagged along with my wife for an extended weekend at Moshav Hispin under the auspices of Chayeinu (the Israeli branch of Chai Lifeline). The purpose of the weekend was to provide a treat for children with cancer, and some relief from the constant stress for their families.
And the weekend delivered. Though some of the children came straight from the oncology ward, an outside observer would have had a hard time discerning the nature of the group, apart from the number of the completely bald children. For those two-and-a-half days, the families looked like any other families savoring a long-awaited vacation.
Much of the success of the weekend can be attributed to the presence of two groups of youthful volunteers who came as counselors. During the year, these volunteers visit the hospital wards to pray or learn or just schmooze with the patients, and to offer encouragement and practical assistance to their families. In addition to the work in the hospital wards, each family has its own volunteer, who is in regular contact and works with both the patients and their siblings.
Over the weekend, the volunteers provided most of the ruach; singing, dressing up in various costumes, and leading the large circle dances. One only had to see the way the faces of their young charges and their families lit up when they approached their table to know what the volunteers mean for these families.
The kinds of activities in which these volunteers, mainly yeshivah bochurim, are engaged in during the course of the week during their off-hours, sets them apart. Their activities hearken back to a long-gone era in the history of American Orthodoxy, that of Zeirei Agudath Israel of 616 Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg.
Between 1939–41, Zeirei Agudath Israel was under the leadership of Reb Elimelech Gavriel (“Mike”) Tress and was the most active group in America procuring visas for Jews trapped in Europe. In addition, Zeirei sent food packages to Jews in Polish ghettoes and conducted massive fundraising campaigns to ransom Jews from the Nazis.
All of the legwork was done by volunteers, the vast majority of whom were in their mid to late teens. It was they who laboriously typed out the lengthy forms necessary for each visa application, solicited affidavits of financial support, and collected the money on street corners, buses, trolley cars, and by going door to door. After the war, young volunteers came in late at night, after their studies, to pack packages that were sent through the Army Post Office to the survivors in the DP camps.
The purpose of this work was to save lives. But a side benefit of these activities was the outlet they provided for all the youthful energy and idealism of those young volunteers. A veteran of the period — today a great-grandmother — once told me, “Then we really lived.”
Even those who may not have been the greatest students in their yeshivah had an outlet in which they could excel and which earned them the respect of their peers and leaders.
Such outlets are far fewer for young people, especially young men, in today’s yeshivah world. And as a consequence, there are too many young men whose normal human need to feel that they can excel in something important and be respected are not being met, often with disastrous consequences.
A COUPLE OF WEEKS AFTER THE WEEKEND, I ran into one of the volunteers. This particular young man’s regal bearing had caught my attention over the weekend, and I decided to speak to him about his experience as a volunteer.
He told me that he had first become involved about four years ago when a cousin took him to a Chanukah party for a young patient just before bar mitzvah. He subsequently developed a connection with that boy, and through him Chayeinu.
As we talked, it became clear to me that this young man’s chesed activities are not just something he does, but an integral part of his life. He told me that they have brought him to a greater closeness with HaKadosh Baruch Hu through fulfillment of the command “You shall go in His ways.”
He views the hours spent in the oncology ward and his learning in yeshivah as a fully integrated whole: “the One Who commanded this, commanded that.” He pointed out that Rabbi Akiva Eiger spent hours every morning involved in bikur cholim, (visiting the sick) in the hospital he founded.
In fact, he told me that he personally has been much more productive in his Torah learning since he started volunteering, and there is no comparison between his chiddushei Torah, Torah novellae, today and those before he began his volunteer activities. He is currently at work on a kuntres (booklet) on the mitzvah of bikur cholim, and quoted dozens of sources in the course of our conversation.
A psychologist might explain that someone who is frustrated in his learning, and finds success and satisfaction in some other praiseworthy endeavor will have a much easier time learning because he feels better about himself. And that is no doubt true. But I did not have a sense that this young man – the son of a serious talmid chacham, had ever been frustrated in yeshivah. He simply saw his growth in Torah learning as a result of a blessing in Torah learning that the Vilna Gaon writes comes to one who is involved in chesed as well. “Sharing a friend’s burden” is one of the ways in which Torah is acquired.
I asked this young man what else he had gained from his experiences as a volunteer. He told me that every hospital visit is a sefer mussar. For one thing, he is much calmer and able to put the little things that might formerly have bothered him in a proper perspective. In addition, he has developed a much deeper understanding of people, and an ability to speak to different people on their level.
In the course of our conversation, I had the impression of speaking to a very refined and sensitive yeshivah bochur, who has thought deeply about everything he does. And that impression was confirmed by my last question.
I asked him why he had not put on a costume over the weekend like the other volunteers. He told me that according to Shulchan Aruch one should wrap oneself in a tallis when visiting the sick because the Shechinah is at the head of a sick person. Even though we do not do so today, he still tries to conduct himself as someone in the presence of the Shechinah.
Originally appeared in Mishpacha Family Magazine.