I usually don’t get a chance to go shopping much, but before Yom Tov I put in my time. Waiting on line in so many places, I had a chance to observe all kinds of people. One thing I noticed is that the most successful salespeople are those who take pride in their job and do not look for shortcuts.
It requires mega doses of patience and strength to stand on your feet all day dealing with people who don’t always know what they want and who can be exasperating and even obnoxious. The urge to make short shrift of such customers – or to be abrupt and curt with customers in general – must be overwhelming at times. Salespeople who do not surrender to this urge are to be admired.
Sometimes you go into a store and they have no time for you and make it clear that you are a nuisance. They make you wait your turn to be abused by a lazy, uninformed salesperson. But other times you are greeted with a welcoming smile and treated as if your concern is the most important thing in the world.
You step into the eyeglass store and the proprietor patiently helps you try on a dozen pairs of glasses to make sure you look just right and feel comfortable with your choice.
You go into a suit store and they help you pick out the best suit for you, because they know how important it is to you to look your best.
The guy in the hat store takes one look at you and selects the perfect hat for you so you don’t have to stand around for an hour trying on different hats at random until you chance upon the right one. To this individual, the way you look is his greatest concern. You walk into the bakery and the smiling person behind the counter takes your order with care; she wants to be sure you are happy with the challahs and cakes you select for Shabbos. She does her best to ensure that you come home with something that will enhance your oneg Shabbos.
People like this, who are devoted to their job of servicing others – no matter how trying those others can be – elevate public service into an art form.
Then there are the people who look down at their customers and are visibly annoyed and fed up with their habits and appetites. “Why don’t you just take a couple pounds of marble cake and be satisfied with that?” you can almost hear them thinking. “Why make a life’s mission out of buying a suit?” you can sense them grumbling. “All suits are basically the same and the hats, too. They’re all black and made by Borsalino; why are you making such a big deal about which hat to buy?”
I was standing in Bencraft Hatters a week before Yom Tov. My friend, Asher, who works there, had already picked out my hat and I was waiting for it be steamed and placed in a box. There was one fellow in the store ahead of me who kept on trying on different hats and looking in the mirror to see which one enhanced his features the best. Asher was quite patient with him, explaining to him the virtues of this hat over that one, and the subtle differences between the hats that you and I would never notice.
Finally, the fellow chose a hat. But as he stood on line, he seemed to still be vacillating about it. He obviously wasn’t at peace with his choice. When it came time to pay and have his initials put in the hat, the man asked that the initials not be embossed so that he can return the hat if “his wife doesn’t like it.”
I made some kind of comment to Asher about the princely way he treated the guy and his hat. He responded, “Zeh zechuto.” When a man buys a hat, he deserves to be indulged and taken care of. He is entitled to walk out the door knowing he got himself a nice hat for Yom Tov.
Asher not only takes his work seriously, but takes pride in ensuring that a customer is totally satisfied. It is for this reason that his boss considers it well worth it to fly him in from Beit Shemesh to stand in the store and sell hats.
People who are sincere about carrying out their responsibilities to the best of their ability are much more likely to succeed than those who wish they were somewhere else, doing something else and making more money. People who take pride in doing a good job are happier with themselves and accomplish a lot more than those who take a dim view of their responsibilities.
There is also the case this week of a Jewish professor at Virginia Tech College, world famed in his field of engineering; he gave up his own life to save the lives of his students. He felt that his responsibilities to his young charges included making the ultimate sacrifice to ensure that they can go on to lead improved, productive lives. He took the responsibility of his profession quite seriously. Thus as a nation sits in mourning over the worst shooting rampage in modern American history, it could have been worse, but for the dedication of a professor to his craft.
We can take inspiration from these people for our own lives and our own unique task as Torah Jews.
The Gemorah in Brachos (43b) states that Hakadosh Boruch Hu created the world in such a way that every person believes in the value of his craft or profession – no matter how lowly others perceive that task to be. The world is thus blessed with enough people to perform even the most mundane tasks.
In the Creator’s grand scheme, the job of the Jewish people, individually and collectively, is to learn and follow the Torah. The Torah is what gives us our identity and what defines us. We are Bnei and Bnos Torah first and plumbers, electricians, lawyers, real estate tycoons, second. Just as the members of these innumerable professions take pride in their craft, according to the mechanism implanted by the Creator, so too we must ensure that we take pride in our dedication to Torah and excel at it.
We stand now in the Sefirah period between Pesach and Shavuos. Pesach is not an end, it is a beginning. We were freed from Mitzrayim so that we could go to Har Sinai and accept the Torah, the defining essence of our people. While enslaved to Paroh, we couldn’t have received the Torah. We had to attain freedom and independence; we had to become worthy of the gift. Had we not, we would have been destroyed at the feet of Mount Sinai as G-d held the mountain over us, for without the Torah we have no purpose and no reason to be.
We celebrate Pesach and view ourselves as if we had just been released from bondage, we drink the four cups of wine and eat the matzoh and maror, but if it is quickly forgotten and doesn’t elevate and transform us, we have squandered precious opportunities. Therefore, we count towards Shavuos and the day which marks our receiving of the Torah as if to demonstrate that, indeed, we are striving and reaching upward, not content to remain at a status quo. Each day of the count we seek to improve ourselves so that we better appreciate the gift that is the Torah.
Perhaps that is why we don’t count in the way one would normally count down to an anticipated date. We count upward; today is day one; today is day two; today is day three. We are saying, I am not the same person I was yesterday. I am better; I have progressed yet another day and have taken another step towards my goal. I am on the way to realizing that the most important thing I can do is accept the Torah, study it and follow it with devotion.
For if we want to excel in our lives as Torah Jews, we have to realize what those successful people described above realize that the key to success, both spiritual and material, is to devote oneself to the task with all one’s strength and talent.
We have to take ourselves and our responsibilities seriously. We have to take pride in our mission, so that we can succeed in being good Jews and good people. It won’t happen with a haphazard, lackadaisical approach, or by going through the motions perfunctorily. It requires weeks of time and effort. It demands a lifetime of discipline and determination. We count the days of Sefirah to reinforce that message.
We live in a hypocritical, upside-down world where the arbiters of good taste and what is important are themselves unimportant charlatans. We live in a time when there are so few people we can turn to for guidance and direction. The only way we can overcome the pernicious influences of society and the vacuity of our times is by subordinating our lives to the words of the Torah and our sages.
Only by studying the Chapters of our Fathers and the mussar works it spawned can we attain the purity of act, clarity of thought, and depth of character required to appreciate and comprehend Torah and its importance.
If we want to truly remake ourselves as better people, if we want to accomplish real things with our lives, we have to take advantage of this post-Pesach period. With the feelings of cheirus still fresh in our psyches, we should dedicate ourselves to refining our understanding of the profound teaching of Chazal: “Ein lecho ben chorin eloh mi she’oseik b’Torah.”