The setting sun doesn't panic most people. Most people, though, aren't Orthodox Jews stuck in traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike an hour before the onset of Sabbath, when Jewish religious law forbids driving a car.
I generally stay off highways and try mightily to avoid cars altogether several hours before sundown of a Sabbath or Jewish holiday. But this past October 6 was an exception. My 16-year-old son was stranded.
Dovie had accepted a ride that morning from Baltimore, where he attends yeshiva, and was to be dropped off at our home in Staten Island. But a later start than planned and unforeseen traffic (a turnpike oxymoron) forced the family bringing him (Orthodox Jews like us) to instead proceed directly to their own destination in New Jersey. They called me several hours before sunset to ask if I could meet them on the turnpike to pick my son up.
I readily, if nervously, agreed, and set out. The traffic was as formidable southward as it was headed north. But my paternal instinct propelled me on. Then my son's drivers called again. They had had to leave Dovie at a motel off the highway in order to reach their own destination before the Sabbath. My paternal instinct and my car went into overdrive.
Judaism is a religion of laws, and for those of us who consider those laws sacrosanct, a situation like the one I faced is harrowing. If the sun set before I reached my son, I would have to pull the car over and leave it wherever it was. It would likely get towed and I would likely be picked up by the police. If I reached my son before sunset but without enough time to get home, we would both be stranded, though thankfully together. As I watched the sun dropping closer to the horizon, I drove as… uh, efficiently as I could, knowing I was in trouble.
To make a long and sweaty palms, parched mouth and high blood pressure story blessedly short, I reached Dovie about a half-hour before sunset. I barely stopped the car, he threw his bags in the back, jumped inside and off we sped.
More traffic. The sun sinking fast. Finally, looming before us, the bridge to Staten Island. We made it across just as the sun began to set. We veered onto a residential street, ditched our possessions in the car (the Sabbath laws prohibit carrying anything in a public area) and got out.
We were ten miles from home, but elated. We had made it onto the island before the Sabbath began. I'm not in great physical shape but, thank G-d, can probably handle a few hours' walk.
After holding our private Mincha service (ideally recited before sunset), we crossed to the median of the highway and marched northward.
After about 45 minutes' walk punctuated by the honks of drivers either amused or perturbed by the sight of a bearded man and a teenage boy walking where no one usually does a car stopped on the median grass about 200 feet in front of us. A man emerged and began walking toward us.
He was a neatly-dressed and pleasant-looking young man, and asked if we needed help.
I explained our predicament and thanked him for his concern.
"Can I drive you home?" he asked.
I replied that on the Sabbath I couldn't as much as open the door of his car.
"If I open it for you, can you be driven?"
"Are you Jewish?" I asked. It would be wrong for me to even cause another Jew to violate the Jewish Sabbath.
"No," he said with a smile. "I'm a born-again Christian."
His offer couldn't be blithely refused. While Sabbath law didn't permit me to explicitly ask someone not bound by it to do something for me that I couldn't do for myself, I hadn't asked; he had offered. I tried to analyze other pertinent factors, including the slim but clear element of danger of walking on a dark highway. As the three of us walked together, I responded, "That is very kind of you. Where are you headed?"
At that point we had reached the man's car; a young woman whom he introduced as his fiancée sat in the front passenger seat. If she had any concern about picking up two strangers, she certainly didn't show it.
"To the Staten Island Mall," he replied, as he opened the door for us. That would shave half our walk off, I thought, and my son and I got in the car. Anthony, as our benefactor identified himself, was all too happy to help. "But please," I said, "just to the mall."
Anthony and his future wife their wedding was to take place in a few weeks, if I recall correctly couldn't have been nicer. Our conversation was about their upcoming marriage and world affairs, and they both made my son and me feel as if we were doing them a favor by allowing them to be our chauffeurs.
In any event, when we reached the mall, Anthony asked us where we lived. I told him and he insisted on taking us home. (Later I discovered that Jewish Law might have required me to not allow him to go out of his way for me.) When we reached our driveway, Anthony opened the door for us again, and we thanked him from the bottom of our hearts. When my wife and family who had last heard from me when I was on the turnpike and didn't know where Dovie and I would be spending Sabbath (and the next day, the second day of Sukkos [Tabernacles]) saw us walk in the front door, they were shocked but overjoyed.
The gratitude we felt toward our benefactors was, and is, not only for their having cared about my son and me but also for demonstrating, in a world of so much evil unleashed in the name of religion, good will toward two strangers of another faith.
In the Jewish religious tradition, though, there is something that goes beyond simple gratitude; it is called hakaras hatov literally: "recognition of the good." Gratitude is recognition of another person's choice, but hakaras hatov is something one must feel even toward an inanimate, unchoosing, object. "Into a well from which you drank," admonishes the Talmud, "do not throw a stone." Moses, similarly, was not permitted to strike the Nile or the earth for the Egyptian plagues that emerged from them; as a baby, he had been hidden from his would-be Egyptian murderers in the Nile, and as an adult had buried in the earth the Egyptian taskmaster he had killed.
Hakaras hatov, I think, can best be understood as something meant to benefit not the recipient but the giver. It is intended to make us the "recognizers" more sensitive, more aware of the ultimate Source of all goodness. Whether through the agency of a well, a river, the earth or the fortuitous arrival of someone able and ready to help us, our ultimate feelings of joy and appreciation are for the One who has provided.
Sukkos is called z'man simchaseinu, "the time of our happiness." This past Sukkos in my home, the phrase resonated with particular power.