Monday, March 28, 2016

The Kindness of Strangers

During my six-month stay in Budapest more than two decades ago, the elegant Mrs. Szeifert presented herself as my resident Jewish grandmother. From her perch on high heels, she fussed over me, teeming with warmth for this stranded expatriate who was not only far from home, but didn’t speak any of the local language.

I enjoyed her companionship and particularly adored her expressions, all delivered in Hungarian-rhythmed English. When she was busy, she would say she was “running hither and thither.” And when she heard unpleasant news, she’d announce, “It absolutely cannot be. It must be something other.”

Sadly, what must not be is. What we could never imagine happening, or happening again, is unfolding in the headlines before our eyes. While I pray that the world will come to its senses and set itself right – that I’ll awake in the morning to find that the mess we’re in has been folded up and tucked away – it seems less and less likely with the passing of time.

I’m not a fan of the phrase “Everything happens for a reason.” Still, I believe G-d has a master plan, even when the wisdom behind it eludes me. Letting go of the illusion that I have any control would come as a relief, though alas, a leopard cannot change her spots. I worry. A lot. To keep it from consuming me, I move from distraction to distraction, prowling for embers of good wherever I can find them. And sometimes, they appear in the unlikeliest of places, like at the pharmacy the other night.

I had to run there as it was closing to pick up a prescription for a family member who had not been feeling well. Worry wasn’t my undercurrent that evening. It was front and center, and as a result, I wasn’t my usual put-together self. Still, the young pharmacist did not rush me when I couldn’t find my insurance card, though I’m sure he was eager to close and head home. Nor he did appear frustrated when I gave him the wrong birthdate for the patient. At some point, he looked up to ask me what was wrong, and I told him, limiting myself to the one thing relevant in the moment.

“He will be fine,” he said.

“How do you know that?” I shot back, gently.

“Because he has you.”

For an instant, time stood still in my corner of the world. Nothing crooked was straightened, nothing broken was fixed, the reason for my concern did not dissipate. Yet the pharmacist, whether he knew it or not, had prescribed exactly what I needed, and in his subtle way, helped the blanket of unease slip from my shoulders and fall to the floor.

I didn’t believe the patient’s recovery would have anything to do with me, nor did I think that my worry would stay away for long.  But in that slim window before it returned was a reminder to do more than brood while waiting for change to arrive from above. Healing words – and when they fail, compassionate silence – can provide a powerful balm in the interim.

A week has passed since that exchange with the pharmacist. Yet what he said continues to echo in my ears and calm me, especially now that my worry is chomping at the bit to return with a vengeance, thanks to the latest headlines and the fact that the patient has not yet recovered. When it comes down to it, though, there’s far too much out there we will never control. All we can do is pray and cede the rest to G-d.

In the meantime we can be generous of spirit, to those we love and to total strangers we meet at the drug store. I brought the pharmacist a challah this past Friday afternoon to thank him for his words, and as we stood there, both of us with gratitude in our eyes, I could tell he didn’t have too many of these moments at the office.

I believe, perhaps naively, that these little exchanges of kindness offer some hope for a peaceful resolution to the mess we’re in.  At the very least, they are the tiny specks of light flickering in the darkness.


  1. Very encouraging words. Peace, one person at a time.

  2. Nice sentiment. May I suggest however a lighter background for your blog. It's difficult to read for those of us with not so great eyesight.

    1. Thanks Helene! I'm actually working on a new website that will have a white background with lettering/colors that will be softer on the eyes.

  3. About the kindness of the pharmacist and your returning the chessed with challah: That's such a HUMAN interaction, you know what I mean? I think that sometime we're in such a hurry, we treat people like objects and we overlook their kindnesses or genuine needs. Well, maybe that's just me.

    1. Challah is what I know to do. Jewish food love is one of my languages and I simply HAD to do something. I needed to make this a two-way interaction. And yes, you are so right about how very human it was. We are all on autopilot. Part of what struck me most about his kindness is that he was already being kind by staying open when he could've closed. He went beyond that and he touched me in such a special way and I pray I won't lose this feeling.

    2. Beautiful story, and my prayer for you is as you wish, to not lose that feeling. Those type of interactions that remind us of our humanness and others of their own are so few and so precious. Small pearls of wisdom we're sometimes left with to keep in our hearts sometimes useful in our futures. Such a blessing!
      Speaking of blessings - I found your Blog today in 'The Times of Israel.' Led there to an article, I read and read and found your Blog, I fell "in love" with how you write and all you write about - family! It brings back so many memories of my own adult children and times we shared when they were yet small ones, teens, and 'letting go.' And I've only read 3 so far! I just love it, and appreciate you for writing it, having already produced many smiles. Thank you again for sharing such a gem of a blog. I'm excited to be a new subscriber and to learn more about Jewish culture. Challah sounds wonderful! May G-d bless you and your family!

    3. Thank you so much for reaching out and sharing this with me, and for your blessings and good wishes.