When I began to consider what I would talk about this morning, I first looked at the Torah portion, Lekh Lekha, in which God tells Avram “to leave your land, your birthplace, your father’s house, and go to the land that I will show you.” For Avram to obey God’s command took emunah, faith. No one would leave everything that he/she valued based on a whim. No, there was belief that this was indeed the will of God. Emunah. There was faith.
And then it occurred to me that this congregation is named Chizuk Amuno, strengthening the faith. Do you know where this name comes from? In 1871, a group of congregants broke away from Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, because of the reforms that it was introducing. The new congregation, an Orthodox congregation, was established by 23 men who wished to strengthen the faith and not yield to the reformers. It was called Hebrew Chizuk Amuno Congregation.
And then I considered the mission of our congregation-
On three pillars is the world based, on Torah, on Avodah and on G’milut Hasadim– on Torah, on worship and on deeds of loving kindness.
For our guests this morning, when we use the word Torah we include all learning that stems from the study of the Torah scroll that we read this morning.
By the way, how many of you know that those words are right up here on the bimah-Torah, Avodah, G’milut Hasadim?
It should be up here, on the sides of the Ark. Don’t you think that that would look great? Now, each of these pillars needs emunah, faith.
It takes faith to study Torah. You have to believe that there is a Law Giver, and that God, the Law Giver, chose the people of Israel to receive the gift of Torah, and to share it with the world.
And you need faith to worship a God that you cannot see. And you need faith to believe that, when it comes to deeds of loving kindness, there is a God who values human life and commands us be God’s partner in bringing healing to the world.
So, that’s my TED talk. But to turn this into a sermon, I need a vehicle to communicate this teaching. Avram had a vehicle. He had a camel. What vehicle should I use?
So, I said to God, “Send me a sign.”
And God sent me Eric Rubin.
It was after Simhat Torah services, and I was walking to my office, and I stopped to greet Eric and his sons, to say how wonderful it was to see them in shul, and to ask Eric to take my best wishes to his lovely wife, Sharon, and he said,
“Two people came up to heaven.”
“A story. Great. I love stories. Please continue.”
“So, two people came up to heaven.” The first was a famous rabbi, who had spent his entire life engaged in Torah, Avodah and G’milut Hasadim.
A real tzadik. A real saintly man. And the angel in charge of admissions warmly welcomed him, and directed him to an apartment complex, Anshei Hesed at 8100 Cloud Drive. He thanked the angel, and was about to depart, but paused for a moment, curious to see where the next person would be sent.
It was a cab driver. He, too, was warmly welcomed and sent to his new home, the large house on the top of the hill, Givat Shalom.
“Just a second,” complained the rabbi to that angel in charge of admissions. “I’m a rabbi who spent his whole life devoted to God, and I’m sent to an apt, God knows where, and a cab driver, is sent to a large house on top of the hill. I don’t understand, it doesn’t make sense, doesn’t seem fair.”
“Then, let me explain.” said the angel. “With all due respect, rabbi, when you preached, people fell asleep. But when he drove, people really prayed.”
And I said to Eric, “if that’s the case, my cab driver must be in the Taj Mahal of heaven.”
And he said, “You have a story?’
“Of course. When I was a student at the seminary, studying to be a rabbi, I remember once getting out of class late, and being concerned about making my 5pm bus back to my home in Parsippany, NJ. I made a split second decision to splurge for a cab instead of waiting for a train to take me to the port authority.
I explained to the driver that I was in a hurry, and needed to get from Broadway and 122nd to 34th street pronto. He smiled and said ‘Don’t worry. Have a little faith.”
He cut over to Amsterdam, and drove like a lunatic.
After five minutes in the cab, I feared for my life.
As anyone here who has ever been in a New York City cab at rush hour can surely testify, the driver will risk accident after accident in order to finish one fare, and get onto the next. That’s why every single cab is covered with dents. Time is money. This man was driving through red lights, one after another. He was cutting in front of other cars, and weaving through traffic like a madman.
Now, I didn’t want to anger a meshugana, but I finally built up the courage to ask a question.
“Excuse me, sir? Are you aware that you are going through all the red lights, sir?”
“Everyone knows that all of the lights in Manhattan are broken. I never pay any attention to the lights. Do you want to make your bus, or don’t ya?”
I was holding onto the armrest for dear life. And before I could say, “Yes sir. Whatever you say, sir,” he began to talk again.
“You are my last fare. Today at 5:00 I finish my last trip of my last shift. I’m quitting. I don’t give a damn what happens to this cab. I hate this job.”
He was now doing 60 along the curb. We would collide with any car that would come out of a blind alleyway, or even with any car that legally would go through a green light at any cross street.
And what was my Jewish response to this ride?
I started to pray with all of my heart, soul and might. Which prayer? The Shema, the prayer that one is supposed to recite twice daily, and just before one dies.
And then a miracle. Congestion. All traffic came to a stop. That was my opening.
I read the meter, paid for my ride, opened the door and started to run for 34th street.
Yep. Up in heaven, that driver lives in a mansion.
So, that’s what God wants from me. God wants me to tell you a few stories about Emuna, about faith, and about cab drivers. And I happen to collect such stories.
This story was about Avodah. Worship. How about a Torah story?
It was about 20 years ago and I was in Israel for a major educational conference. As usual, I took a taxi from Ben Gurion airport to Jerusalem, this time to the Hyatt Hotel on Har Hatzofim. It’s now called the Dan Jerusalem.
I told the driver my destination. And he began to talk. In Hebrew, of course.
“So, what business are you in?” he asked.
“I’m a Jewish educator,” I replied.
‘”Good,” he said.
“Guess what I do?” He asked me.
“I hope that the answer has something to do with driving a taxi,” I replied.
“Oh, of course. But, what’s my real job?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“I collect Torah,” he replied.
“Every day, I travel back and forth to the airport. Many of my passengers, like you, are rabbis and scholars from all over the world. I ask each of them to teach me some Torah. I’ve been driving for over 25 years. I’ve learned a lot of Torah. So, now it’s your turn. Teach me some Torah.”
“Sure,” I said. “I guess you know all of the major commentaries.”
“Of course. I know all of the major commentaries, not only on the Torah, but on the Mishnah and Gemorah, and the codes of Jewish law. I know them all.”
“Ok,” I said.
I still remember the Torah that i shared with this driver, and I’m going to share it with you now.
Take out your prayer books and turn to page 104, nine lines from the bottom of the page.
We ask God to distance us from people who would do us evil, and from a חבר רע ,an evil friend. If a friend is evil, how can that person continue to be our friend? It doesn’t make sense.
A person who tells you what he or she thinks you want to hear, and doesn’t tell you the truth is a haver ra, a bad friend. A good friend tells you the truth, a bad friend lies and tells you what he or she thinks you want to hear.
“How about an occasional white lie?’ the driver asked, “So that the world can continue to exist.”
“Ok,” I responded. “But don’t push it.”
The driver was pleased with that vort, that word of Torah, and safely delivered me to my destination.
So, a story about Avodah, worship, and a story about Torah, and now I need one more story,
This one is about G’milut Hasadim, deeds of loving kindness. I’m going to share with you one of my favorite stories, which happens to be about a cab driver. This is not my story.
I don’t know the author. It is written in the first person, and that is how I will share it with you this morning.
Twenty years ago, I drove a cab for a living. When I arrived at 2:30 a.m., the building was dark except for a single light in a ground floor window. Under the circumstances, many drivers would just honk once or twice, wait a minute, and then drive away.
But I had seen too many impoverished people who depended on taxis as their only means of transportation. Unless a situation smelled of danger, I always went to the door.
This passenger might be someone who needs my assistance, I reasoned to myself.
I went to the door and knocked. “Just a minute”, answered a frail voice. I could hear something being dragged across the floor.
After a long pause, the door opened. A small woman in her 80’s stood before me. She was wearing a print dress and a pillbox hat with a veil pinned on it, like somebody out of a 1940’s movie.
By her side was a small nylon suitcase. The apartment looked as if no one had lived in it for years. All the furniture was covered with sheets. There were no clocks on the walls, no knickknacks or utensils on the counters.
In the corner was a cardboard box filled with photos and glassware.
“Would you carry my bag out to the car?” she said. I took the suitcase to the cab, then returned to assist the woman.
She took my arm and we walked slowly toward the curb. She kept thanking me for my kindness.
“It’s nothing”, I told her. “I just try to treat my passengers the way I would want my mother treated”.
“Oh, you’re such a good boy”, she said.
When we got to the cab, she gave me an address, then asked, “Could you drive through downtown?”
“It’s not the shortest way,” i answered quickly.
“Oh, I don’t mind,” she said. “I’m in no hurry.
I ‘m on my way to a hospice.”
I looked in the rearview mirror. Her eyes were glistening.
“I don’t have any family left,” she continued. “
The doctor says I don’t have very long.”
I quietly reached over and shut off the meter. “What route would you like me to take?” I asked.
For the next two hours, we drove through the city. She showed me the building where she had once worked as an elevator operator. We drove through the neighborhood where she and her husband had lived when they were newlyweds.
She had me pull up in front of a furniture warehouse that had once been a ballroom where she had gone dancing as a girl.
Sometimes she’d ask me to slow in front of a particular building or corner and would sit staring into the darkness, saying nothing.
As the first hint of sun was creasing the horizon, she suddenly said, “I’m tired. Let’s go now.”
We drove in silence to the address she had given me. It was a small convalescent home, with a driveway that passed under a portico.
Two orderlies came out to the cab as soon as we pulled up. They were solicitous and intent, watching her every move. They must have been expecting her.
I opened the trunk and took the small suitcase to the door. The woman was already seated in a wheelchair.
“How much do I owe you?” She asked, reaching for her purse.
“Nothing.” I said.
“You have to make a living.” She answered.
“There are other passengers,” I responded.
Almost without thinking, I bent and gave her a hug. She held onto me tightly.
“You gave an old woman a moment of joy,” she said.
I squeezed her hand, then walked into the dim morning light. Behind me, a door shut. It was the sound of the closing of a life.
I didn’t pick up any more passengers that shift. I drove aimlessly, lost in thought. For the rest of the day, I could hardly talk.
What if that woman had gotten an angry driver, or one who was impatient to end his shift? What if she had gotten my NYC driver? What if I had refused to take the run, or had honked once, then driven away?
On a quick review, I don’t think that I have done anything more important in my life. We’re conditioned to think that our lives revolve around great moments.
But great moments often catch us unaware – beautifully wrapped in what others may consider a small one.
Our sages taught us that we can learn from everything and everybody.
What can we learn from a cab driver? Plenty, if you have a little Emunah, a little faith, and keep your mind and heart open, and listen.
You can learn about Torah, and worship and deeds of lovingkindness.
Rabbi Paul D. Schneider grew up in Detroit. He received his ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary, and his doctorate in educational administration from Teachers College, Columbia University.
He served as the headmaster of Chizuk Amuno’s Krieger Schechter Day School in Baltimore for 29 years, and following that, was engaged by the congregation to serve as its Director of Congregational Life. In 2014-2015, Rabbi Schneider served as interim principal of the high school at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Maryland. In 2015-2016, he was interim rabbi of Beth Tikvah Synagogue in Toronto, Ontario. This last year, Rabbi Schneider was the interim rabbi of Temple Beth David in Palm Beach Gardens.
Rabbi Schneider has served as president of both the Association of Independent Schools of Maryland and DC, and the Jewish Educators Assembly. He is married to Marilyn Schneider, a CPA , and they have three grown sons, a wonderful daughter-in-law and two delicious granddaughters. His passion is for Israel, and he loves stories.