07The Man Who Caused Us to Miss the Train
Rabbi Marcus Lehman
I was in a great hurry that morning. I was heading a delegation slated to meet with the German Minister of Education, and had only 30 minutes to get to the station where the two other representatives of the Meintz Jewish community awaited me and from where we would board the train to the capital.
I had already put on my coat when I heard an unfamiliar voice in the hallway asking to see me immediately. I heard my wife explaining that I was in a terrible rush and suggesting that the visitor come back the following day. "No!" the unknown voice cried. "Tomorrow will be too late. It's absolutely urgent -- a matter of life and death!"
I ran into the hallway and invited the stranger into my study. "Please tell me what the problem is very quickly," I said. "I'm about to leave to the station, and the carriage is already waiting."
"Yes, Rabbi. But first, Shalom Aleichem! Don't you recognize me?" the little white-haired old man asked.
"No, I'm sorry. But please get to the point. I can only give you a minute. You said..."
"Yes, Rabbi," the little man said, settling comfortably into a chair. "It is indeed a matter of life and death. But I'm surprised that you don't remember me. About a year ago I heard you give a sermon in your synagogue. Ay-ay-ay, what a sermon! Every word you uttered was a gem. I have a good memory, Rabbi. I could repeat it for you, if you'd like."
"My dear friend," I replied, "please get to the point. Otherwise, you'll be sitting here by yourself. I really must run."
"Alright, Rabbi. This is the story...
"Thirty years ago I married a true 'woman of valor.' For 25 years we lived happily. Then, five years ago, my wife passed away…"
I was getting annoyed. "I'm afraid there's not much I can do at this point, is there? Come back tomorrow and I'll be more than happy to listen to your life story. But I simply must leave for the station. My train is departing in a few minutes."
The old man clutched my sleeve. "Please hear me out," he begged. "I assure you, the life of a live person is at stake. Let me continue...
"A few years ago my son moved to America. After my wife died, he asked me to come live with him. I went, but I didn't like it in America, and I came back. That was a year ago, about the same time I heard your sermon. Ay-ay-ay, what a sermon! Every word was a pearl, a precious gem…"
"Again with the sermon!" I cried, looking at my watch.
"All right, I won't mention it again. But just listen to what happened. I arrived home a few days before the brit (circumcision) of my grandson, and was given the honor of being sandek (the one who holds the baby). Unfortunately, the day before the brit the baby got sick and died...
"But that isn't why I'm here. Last week, my daughter gave birth to another son, and again asked me to be sandek."
"May the brit take place in a good and auspicious time," I mumbled, rushing to the door.
"But Rabbi!" the old man persisted. "I'm afraid. Don't you understand? I don't even want to say it aloud, but... Maybe I shouldn't be sandek?"
"So let someone else be sandek!" I said distractedly as I scrambled into the waiting carriage.
"And the name?" the visitor called after me. "What should we name the baby? Should we name him Yitzchak-Shlomo, as we planned to name the first baby? Or should we choose a different name? This is a life-and-death matter!"
"You want me to pick a name?" I cried, finally losing my patience. "Call him Abraham, Baruch, Chayim, David, Michah, Yerucham, Zerach …"
"I'll pay you double if we get to the station on time!" I yelled to the driver, but it was too late. As soon as we arrived at the station we heard the train departing.
I was beside myself. How would we ever excuse our lateness to the Minister? Should we even go at all? But the other members of the delegation, who had waited for me at the station, were more amused than upset when they heard the cause for my delay. We decided to take the next train, scheduled to depart in two hours.
When we returned to the station later, the whole place was in an uproar. The train we had missed had been involved in a terrible accident. Many of the passengers had been killed and dozens were injured. In retrospect, the old man with his rambling story had been an emissary sent from G‑d to save our lives. Indeed, it had been a matter of life-and-death...
The Minister had been very worried about us, and was delighted to learn that we had not been on the ill-fated train. The delegation's mission was conducted successfully.
Two years later, I passed through a certain village, and many of the townsfolk came out to greet me. Standing at the front of the line was none other than my old friend, the little white-haired man.
"Shalom Aleichem! Do you remember me? A few years ago I heard you give a sermon. Ay-ay-ay, what a sermon!" The old man held a small child in his arms. "This is my grandson, Abraham-Baruch-Chayim-David-Michah-Yerucham-Zerach."
"So many names?" I asked in surprise.
"But you yourself told us to name him that!" the old man replied. "I have an excellent memory. I can even repeat your sermon word for word if you'd like. Ay, what a sermon that was..."