A Song for the Unsung Heroes

Taanit 21b and the power of small acts of kindness

Here in Manhattan, every night at 7:00, our neighbors gather at their windows, on the sidewalk, or on their roofs. With their voices, pots and spoons, a pair of cymbals, an airhorn, and even a shofar, they hollar their appreciation for the essential workers who are risking their lives to keep our society running. In the past weeks and months, many of us have suddenly thought more about the grocery store workers, post office employees, sanitation workers, and hospital staff than we ever had before. For people like me, who are lucky enough to be able to stay home, I’ve never felt so aware of how many people can’t, because we need them.

I wonder sometimes about what will happen, hopefully sooner rather than later, when this pandemic is behind us and we have to write about it as part of history. Are we going to write about the President and the governors, the fights in congress and the mayors wearing masks? Are we going to remember the doctors, nurses, and hospital staff who risked their lives to save others? Or will those history books also include the stories of the people who stocked our shelves and picked up our trash?

In the gemara in Ta’anit, a small piece of history born out of tragedy offers us one way to write these stories. You can read the full sugya here, but I was particularly struck by a small story about a fire:

בדרוקרת הוות דליקתא ובשיבבותיה דרב הונא לא הוות דליקתא סבור מינה בזכותא דרב הונא דנפיש איתחזי להו בחילמא האי זוטרא ליה לרב הונא אלא משום ההיא איתתא דמחממת תנורא ומשיילי לשיבבותיה

In Drokart there was a fire, but in the neighborhood of Rav Huna there was no fire. The people therefore thought this was due to Rav Huna’s great merit. It was revealed to them in a dream that this matter was too small for the merit of Rav Huna. Rather, it was due to a certain woman who heats her oven and lends [the heat and fuel of her oven] to her neighbors.

What does it mean for Rav Huna’s merit to be too great to help prevent something like a fire? If merit is meant to prevent bad things, then surely saving his home and the homes of his neighbors is the point of such merit! It seems to me, then, that perhaps Rav Huna is too removed from the concerns of his neighbors. Surely, he is great. He is a Torah scholar, and is known for trying to use his wealth to help the farmers in his town. However, something that is small to him is surely large to the people in this neighborhood, whose homes are spared, and to the people in the other neighborhoods, who lost their homes. Like the politicians whose arguments sometimes feel too far removed from the ways that our most vulnerable are suffering, Rav Huna’s power actually hampers him in this case.

It turns out, the hero of this story is someone whose merit is virtually unknown—except, perhaps, to the people who she helps. In the time of the rabbis, fuel to light an oven was not accessible to everyone. There were certainly people who would not have been able to eat had this woman not provided them with the heat to cook their food. And yet she did not do this for acclaim. I imagine that if her neighbors praised her, she would say that helping was obvious, or instinctual. But she is the one who matters most to her neighbors, both when they are able to eat and when their homes are protected.

The parallels in the story are obvious. She provides fire, and therefore is saved from fire. If the townspeople had not all had a dream about her, her generosity would have remained anonymous. They need to experience trauma, and then relief, before they realize that her small act of kindness has saved them all. She has sacrificed her fuel, and so they do not have to sacrifice their homes.

When we clap and cheer every night, I try to think not only of the doctors and nurses, but also the other people who keep our hospitals running—the cafeteria workers, maintenance people, administrators, security guards. I think about the people who make minimum wage, who get our cheers but don’t necessarily get the security they deserve, and who have never received our attention before. It is as if we have all had a collective dream, reminding us of the merit of these people, and how they help protect us. The question becomes what we will do to protect them.

There are large structural changes that will need to happen for our society to open up again, to begin to thrive. But as we advocate for those changes, we can also do small acts of kindness for the people who we never really saw before, but whose quiet kindness is changing all of our lives. My friend Adira, who works at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, has started a program called “Adopt a Frontliner,” which allows people to send cards, artwork, and other thank yous to ALL the people keeping our hospitals running during this really scary time. She has connected people with thousands of workers, but has thousands more who deserve our thanks. Anyone can participate, whether you’re 6 or 60 years old. If you would like to sign up, you can do so with this form. It’s a great way to express a small amount of gratitude to the people saving us from this fire blazing all around us. And if you’re one of those people whose merit is sustaining us, know that you have our eternal gratitude.