The following is one of the most remarkable stories I have ever heard. It is especially striking because of the era in which it occurred - our own time!
Nowadays, we often hear people described as self-centered and selfish products of the "Me Generation," in which one's own whims and wishes take precedence over anything else. It is reassuring to know that there are still people who act in extraordinary ways under extraordinary conditions.
It was the summer of 1992 and several yeshivas (academies of Torah study) had arranged for their students and rabbis to spend the summer learning at Camp Harim in Greenfield Park, a ztown in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York.
One of those yeshivas was the Yeshiva Gedolah of Montreal, whose dean, Rabbi Mordechai Weinberg, was a renowned Torah scholar and one of the founders of the camp.
On the 15th day of Tammuz (July 16, 1992) he had yahrzeit (memorial day) for his mother. He had felt back pains the night before but was not concerned. At the morning service, however, as he stood leading the prayers, he suddenly felt severe chest pains.
After services, Rabbi Weinberg walked directly to the bungalow of Rabbi Yoel Silverberg, head of the volunteer Hatzoloh Ambulance Unit in the area. Rabbi Weinberg told him about his symptoms. Within minutes it was apparent that he'd suffered a severe heart attack.
Rabbi Weinberg was rushed to Sullivan County Community Hospital in Harris, New York, where emergency treatments were begun. As Rabbi Silverberg attended to Rabbi Weinberg, camp officials immediately called his wife, who was away in New York City, to notify her of the situation. Rebbetzin Esther Weinberg dropped everything and headed directly for the hospital in Harris, a two-hour drive from the city.
Rabbi Weinberg's condition deteriorated rapidly, and by the time his wife was able to get to the hospital, the situation was critical. The entire camp was reciting Psalms for the stricken rabbi, and as news about the perilous situation spread in camps and bungalow colonies throughout the Catskills and elsewhere, many others recited Psalms and studied Torah on his behalf.
In Sullivan County Community Hospital, Rabbi Silverberg stood next to Rabbi Weinberg's bed in the cardiac intensive care unit, as cardiologists worked continuously, doing everything possible to save his life. Rabbi Silverberg was at his side when Rabbi Weinberg said that he was feeling more pain. Rabbi Silverberg walked around behind the bed and when he looked down, he saw that Rabbi Weinberg had expired right before his eyes!
Rabbi Silverberg began to tremble as he realized that now he had the terrible, frightening task of bringing the horrible news to the Rebbetzin, who was outside in the waiting room with her daughter.
What would he say! How could he face her? How does someone tell a woman that her husband is no longer alive? He dreaded this situation as he had never dreaded anything before.
Slowly he walked to the waiting room, his head down. As he came into the lobby, he could see the Rebbetzin sitting with her daughter in the distance. He instinctively looked away to avoid making eye contact with her. Hesitantly, he made his way to where she was sitting. He fought to hold back his tears and swallowed to muffle his sobs. Almost inaudibly, Rabbi Silverberg said, "Rebbetzin, I am so sorry to tell you - your husband didn't make it."
At first Mrs. Weinberg didn't say anything. As the impact of the catastrophe sank in, she sat quietly for ten long seconds, without uttering a word. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, she looked up at Rabbi Silverberg and, with a sensitivity beyond belief, said, "It must be so hard for you to have to tell me that."
That night as the family was packing to leave the camp and head for the funeral the next morning in Montreal, Mrs. Weinberg said to her children, "Let's not forget to tip the waiters."
I have thought about these two comments dozens of times. How is it possible for someone at the most tragic moment of her life to retain the strength and presence of mind to be concerned about someone else's pain and discomfort? How can one who is suddenly shattered with the wrenching grief of the loss of her partner in life remain sensitive to another person's burden, when that burden is minuscule in comparison? Are there really people who can think of tipping waiters while packing for a funeral?!
Obviously such extraordinary people do exist among us, people so refined in their behavior towards fellow humans that their pristine character sets the standard for their generation. In this case - our generation.
Reprinted with permission from "ALONG THE MAGGID'S JOURNEY,"
a collection of Jewish stories and parables, by Rabbi Paysach Krohn.