Tomorrow marks the 26th Yartzeit (anniversary of passing) of a special, saintly woman, Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka Shneerson, of righteous memory. Known simply as "the Rebbetzin," she was the daughter of the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe (spiritual leader) and husband of the seventh and a revered and beloved character in the Lubavitch community.
I want to share with you a famous anecdote about the Rebbetzin and see if we can't glean some wisdom for Calabasas circa 2013.
In May 1940, France was invaded by German forces and surrendered within four weeks. A French puppet regime led by Marshal Philippe Petain and Pierre Laval was established in Vichy, and the Rebbe and the Rebbetzin, like most Jews, fled to Nice in southern France, choosing to live under Petain's government rather than direct Nazi occupation in Paris and the surrounding areas.
In the course of their flight, there was a devastating bombardment. As people ran in every direction, she noticed an explosive shell heading towards a man next to her. Quickly pushing him to the ground, the Rebbetzin saved the man's life. Recounting this story the Rebbetzin characteristically said, "True, I saved his life, but for pushing someone, I must repent."
What an incredibly beautiful sentiment. Imagine that! She saved his life and can't forgive herself for shoving him. The beneficiary of her kindness certainly not only forgave her for his "discomfort" but surely saw no reason for her to feel bad, and yet, she did. And mere mortals like me might wonder why? What's the Mitzvah in that kind of unreasonable self-imposed guilt?
And yet, it resonates. For although the average person will be just that, average, and may not be expected to rise to the level of a Rebbetzin, the message is still important: Not even acting righteous absolves "hurtful" behavior.
Fact is, much, if not most, bad behavior between adults is done proudly in the name of goodness. People gossip about each other and tell themselves they're doing it (not because it's one of the great pleasures in life, but) "Because I care!" Or because "People need to know!" How many times have we heard about collateral damage from campaigns to do good, people whose lives or reputations were carelessly trampled because they didn't toe the line of a specific good cause exactly the way the cause's advocates insisted it be toed.
How many innocent, good people are caught unaware and suffer damage from laws meant to improve life in one way or another for this or that segment of society? How many social justice movements have casually hurt innocent people - and sometimes irreversibly - and no one says "boo" because those people don't fit into that day's "cause de jour"?
Society and its activist do-gooders need to remember the Rebbetzin and take heed. She was doing the biggest Mitzvah in the world - saving a life! - and yet she didn't take it lightly that she shoved someone in the process. And in the Rebbetzin's case, the man she shoved was the same man she saved and still she didn't excuse herself. So in a case where someone is proverbially "shoved" by a person or a cause seeking to save someone else - there needs to be seriously soul-searching.
There are many factors (e.g. self-interest, cost, time, inconvenience) that need to be dismissed when an opportunity arises to improve - and certainly to save - a life. Collateral damage to other lives is NOT one of them.
May the Rebbetzin's memory be a blessing and an inspiration to all of us to do one more act of kindness than yesterday, with the wisdom and attention that keeps it an act of pure goodness.