There is a well-known story about Reb Yissachar and Reb Shmelke of Nikolsburg that is used to show the extent to which anger can be controlled. (Many versions of this story are in print; one is by Hanoch Teller, who heard it from the Bostoner Rebbe, zt”l.) After R’ Yissachar’s death, R’ Shmelke was asked to become the Rabbi of Nikolsberg. As he walked through R’ Yissachar’s empty house, which was to become his home, he smelled a beautiful fragrance. He knew that this heavenly smell meant that a wonderful good deed was performed there, and he asked around to find out what it was, but no one knew.
One day, an elderly gentile woman approached him on the street. She told him she heard he was searching for the remarkable event associated with the house, and she thought she knew what it was. When she was a young girl, she became a maid at R’ Yissachar’s house shortly before Pesach. One morning (erev Pesach), the parents and all the older children left the house, and she was alone with the younger children. The children began to cry because they were hungry. The maid looked all over the house but could not find any food for them. She finally found some crackers in a box in the closet, and fed these to the children.
The family came home later and began preparing for the Seder. The table was set with the family’s finest dishes, and the Seder plate was prepared. Then R’ Yissachar went to look for the matzos and couldn’t find them! The whole family began looking but to no avail. The maid saw all this, went to R’ Yissachar and told him that the children had been hungry, and she fed them the only food she found in the house, the crackers in the closet. R’ Yissachar was quiet for a moment, asked her to repeat what she had said, then asked an older child to bring some of the ordinary matzos they had bought, to place on the Seder table. He told the maid, “Thank you for taking such good care of my children.” R’ Shmelke agreed that this must have been the beautiful deed responsible for the heavenly smell.
A beautiful story, with an important message regarding the behavior bein adam lechaveiro (between one person and another). But some 20 years ago, when Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb was still Rav of Shomrei Emunah, he added an additional depth of understanding that has helped me understand people better. He said that from the maid’s perspective, she had taken very good care of the children, searching until she found the crackers for them to eat. She did the right thing, and R’ Yissachar was able to realize and acknowledge this. To him, the food was matza, but to her it was crackers, and she acted consistent with this perspective.
This sense of understanding the values of the other person has helped me over the years. For example, a number of years ago I accidentally scratched my neighbor’s car when I was parking mine. It was a small scratch, and had it happened to my car (as it did some time later when another neighbor scratched mine), I would have ignored it and not repaired it. My car is important to me as a vehicle. (I thank Hashem for it every erev Shabbos for its getting me where I needed to go during the week, but that is another story.) I don’t consider my car an item of beauty. My neighbor valued her car in a different way and asked us to pay for the whole car to be repainted, which we did. To me, a car was “crackers,” a utilitarian object. To my neighbor, it represented something more, and she dealt with it from her perspective, not mine. I had to recognize that the car was not merely “crackers” to her but something much more valuable and to accept her worldview of it.
In the realm of eating, this story has a number of important implications. First, at a basic level, food can mean different things to different people. Rabbi Paysach Krohn in the first Maggid book bring the story of a chasid of R’ Aharon Hagadol, the first Karliner Rebbe, watching his Rebbe eating an apple. The Rebbe said to the visitor, “You think that we are both alike, both wanting to eat and enjoy this apple. But you make a bracha on the apple because you want to enjoy it, and I eat the apple so I can make a bracha on it.” In an early NSCY guide to the laws of birchos hanehenin (blessings for eating food and appreciating other aspects of nature), Rabbi Pinchas Stolper says in his introduction, “We are the only people on earth who are so sensitive to the presence of Hashem and the need to be constantly aware of His love and kindness that we are able to elevate so simple an act as drinking a few sips of water into an occasion on which we speak of Hashem as King, Ruler, and Creator.” While most of us are not at the level of having this kavanah (intention) all the time, we can probably at least occasionally sense the potential of eating as connecting us closer to Hashem.
Beyond this general sense of food supplying a connection to Hashem, which is theoretically accessible to everyone, there are meanings to food that are unique to the individual. For example, there is something about a certain type of cookie that really appeals to me, and I cannot keep it in the house because it is too tempting. The taste has a lot to do with it, but it is not sophisticated fare (and is not even chocolate!), so it’s hard for me to figure out why it has that appeal. These cookies are not just “crackers”; they symbolize in some way something very appealing to me. If I could understand this better, perhaps I would be able to curb my appetite for them.
And Hashem wants us to be connected to this world. When Mashiach comes and the resurrection of the dead takes place, our soul will be recombined with our body. One might ask why this is. Why should the holy neshama reunite with the earthly body? But clearly, Hashem views it as important for us to use and to elevate the physical.
So the question is, if a physical item has been endowed with added meaning by us, for whatever reason, is there a way to de-endow it, to restore cookies to mere “crackers”? This concept would apply to many things in our lives. If a particular item or action has some strong value for us that is over and above the way one would normally see it, and that strong value is influencing our behavior in negative ways, can we de-value it and overcome that obstacle in our path to serving Hashem? I am not sure of the answer to this question, but certainly, being aware of the issue is the first step in trying to overcome difficulties in our daily behavior.
Janet Sunness is medical director of the Richard E. Hoover Low Vision Rehabilitation Services at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center. She gives classes and talks on a variety of topics in the Baltimore area for the Women’s Institute of Torah and Cong. Shomrei Emunah. © Janet Sunness 2016