An unusual action results in unexpected consequences.
I was at work in the synagogue office preparing a board presentation. The office was unusually busy, and the phone was ringing off the hook. Something must have happened, but I was determined to stay focused, finish my task and get home for a quiet dinner with my husband.
The receptionist turned to me, “Chana, this call’s for you!”
My friend, Malka, never phoned me at work. “Sorry to bother you,” she apologized. “I had to catch you before you leave. Dave’s back in the hospital, and things look grim.”
“Not again!” I moaned. Dave had been in remission for a while, but this was his third hospitalization. Twice, there had been a massive outpouring of prayer and tzedakah in the hopes that our community could affect the outcome. And whether we were responsible for averting God’s apparent plan or not, it seemed to help before. Now what?
I admired and respected Dave. He and his wife were great parents, dependable and energetic volunteers at shul and their kids’ schools, and generous supporters of myriad communal efforts. When called to help others, Dave always said “yes.”
In situations like this, it was common for our congregation to gather in prayer and to give tzedakah in an effort to sway God with our group action. We hoped our earnest mitzvot “below” would be rewarded with compassion from “above.”
Malka told me that people were planning to recite psalms at the hospital that evening. She and I wondered if there was something else we could do when Ruth, a new synagogue member, burst into the office. She knew Dave and his wife because they had welcomed and helped her family when they arrived in Atlanta.
Now Ruth wanted to organize a mitzvah project from her former synagogue. I put her on speakerphone so Malka could listen. Neither of us had heard of her idea.
“Everybody knows the damage of gossip, right?” Ruth asked. “What if a group of us vowed to refrain from gossip? We’ll contact as many people as we can. Each person will select two hours of the day during which we will neither speak nor listen to gossip.”
“For how long? Days? Weeks? Months?” I asked, skeptically.
“However long it takes,” Ruth answered, bluntly.
That evening, while one group was at the hospital, more than 20 of us met at shul. Ruth explained the plan and people readily selected their two hours. I signed up, too. It couldn’t hurt.
I had to be honest. If I really wanted to be part of pumping up the mitzvah power aimed heavenward, I had to pick my major gossip hours: 5 to 7 p.m. This is when I was often in my office and when I had my heaviest phone and email chatting.
My office phone rang the next day, just after 6 p.m. It was Sue, eager to entertain me with a report of an embarrassing situation concerning a mutual friend. Oy!
“Sue, I can’t listen to that,” I said, feeling uncomfortable.
“Why not? It’ll crack you up. She’s such a ditz!”
“I agreed to refrain from speaking or listening to gossip,” I explained. For some reason I didn’t understand, I didn’t offer to call her back after 7 p.m.
“Is this some kind of woo-woo Orthodox thing?” Sue asked, sarcastically.
“A group of us are doing this because a wonderful man is really sick. Maybe we can change his fate by changing ourselves. I don’t know how this works, but I’m doing it.”
“Chana, what’s happening to you! What’s wrong with laughing at the nutty people we know?”
“I’m not going to talk about them. Let’s talk about something else.”
“Like what? Kosher recipes? You know what, Chana? You’re a religious fanatic! When you come back to your senses, call me. In the meantime, I’m giving our friendship a break. Goodbye, former normal person!”
Good grief! I used to love the fact that Sue never hid her feelings.
Dear reader, I’m sure you have questions. No, Sue and I are no longer good friends. Yes, Dave’s still alive; and as for gossip, I’m working on it.