|Yom Kippur/ Yizkor Drasha 5766/2005 'The Butterfly Effect'
If your phone rang at home and someone picked it up and said, "it's for you...it's someone from the I.R.S." -- you'd probably swallow hard. And even if the call wasn't from the I.R.S. but it was just from 'a lawyer', you'd still probably be a bit concerned. Ten years ago a call came in to the president's office at Yeshiva University, proving that not all calls from lawyers carry bad news.
Rabbi Norman Lamm was the president of YU in 1995 when the voice on the other end of the line said he was the attorney for a woman named Anne Scheiber. Now -- you may not have ever heard of Anne Scheiber, and before that phone call, very few people in the world had ever heard of Anne Scheiber. But Rabbi Lamm was informed by the attorney on the phone that Anne Scheiber had just died at the age of 101, and had left her entire estate -- worth a whopping $22 million -- to Yeshiva University.
Who was Anne Scheiber, and why did she leave such an enormous amount of money to a Jewish Orthodox institution of higher learning? I'd like share the answers to these questions with you today, and simultaneously share a powerful message we can all appreciate on Yom Kippur.
Anne Scheiber was born in 1894 and went to work as a bookkeeper at the age of 15. She put herself through college at night, eventually going on to law school. Anne joined the I.R.S. as an auditor in 1920. When Anne retired in 1941 with a monthly pension of $83 and only $5,000 in savings, she devoted her talent and energy to investing in the stock market. And boy, was she ever successful. Through shrewed investments, frugal living and an average annual return of an incredible 18.3%, by her death in 1995 her portfolio was worth an astounding $22 million. She bequeathed the entire amount to Yeshiva University, with the stipulation that the money be used to establish a scholarship and loan fund for deserving female students at YU's sister institution of Stern College.
But a question remains; of all the various causes and institutions available, why did Anne Scheiber give her millions to Yeshiva University, and stipulate that the money be used for female students at Stern?
Women in the early 1900's -- especially Jewish women in the early 1900's -- had little chance of getting ahead. Anne Scheiber was consistently a top auditor, but never got promoted. You've heard of the ___expression 'Don't get mad, get even?' Anne Scheiber wanted to rectify the acts of discrimination against her by providing other Jewish women the opportunity to get ahead. However that may not be the only reason for her mega-gift.
It's rumored that when Anne Scheiber used to walk past Stern College, she was greeted in an exceedingly friendly and cheerful way by the young female students. Imagine the scenario; an old, non-descript, single woman walking down a street in New York City. Who would even stop to give such a person the time of day? Not only did those young Orthodox girls of Stern College acknowledge Anne's existence, but showed her 'saver panim yaffos' -- friendly smiling faces, and good words. What was the payoff? A multi-million dollar endowment that would allow some of the daughters of those same young women to go college and grad school, tuition-free.
Who would have thought that such small actions could result in such an enormous gift?
Pulitzer prize winning author N. Scott Momaday said:
If you believe in the power of words, you can bring about physical changes in the universe.
We Jews take that idea a step further; we believe not only in the power of words, but in the power of a single mitzvah. And we believe that our words and our mitzvahs can bring about physical AND spiritual changes in the universe that we can't even begin to fathom.
Let me give you a few other examples.
The Book of Judges (Sefer Shoftim) tells the story of a man named Eglon who was the king of the ancient country known as Moab. Eglon was a person who in modern parlance would be called a 'Bad Dude'. He was mean. He was ornery. He was a ruthless killer. And for good measure, he was incredibly obese. A Jewish hero and Shofait (Judge) named Ehud approached King Eglon while the king was sitting alone in his upper chamber. Ehud said, " I bring to you a word from the G-d of Israel.' Upon hearing that there was a message from the G-d of Israel, the wicked, corpulent King Eglon stood up from his chair.
Our rabbis tell us that an incredible thing happened. Even though Eglon was the Saadam Hussein of his day, because he showed respect for G-d he was given a great reward. The reward was that Ruth, the great grandmother of King David, came from Eglon. History was changed, and Eglon earned eternity through Ruth and King David -- all because of one simple act of showing respect to God. One good word or deed --even done by a person of King Eglon's caliber -- can create spiritual reverberations that we can't begin to conceive of. How much more so a mitzvah done by a good person!
Scientists discuss a phenomenon called the 'Butterfly Effect'. They speculate that the flap of a butterfly's wings in Brazil might be able to set off a tornado in Texas. We certainly believe in a 'Spiritual Butterfly Effect' -- one smile, one good word, one sincerely done mitzvah can change worlds, and alter the course of history.
A final example of the power of a single action can be seen from an incident that took place many years after Ehud and Eglon -- in the middle of the 20Th century in the United States.
A baby boy was born during a very cold winter in Chicago. The parents of the boy, both of whom were Jewish but not particularly religious. They had a discussion whether they should engage a mohel to perform the bris (circumcision), or simply have it done by a doctor in the hospital. The parents discussed the issue back and forth, with the opinion of the mother prevailing that a mohel should be contacted. After all, the mother said, 'when it comes to a bris for our first born son, we should make sure it's done right.'
A complication in the plans was, however, is that the baby was born on Shabbos -- which meant that the bris was to take place on Shabbos. And as I'm sure many of you know that 40 and 50 years ago women who had just given birth weren't kicked out of the hospital in 48 or 36 hours like they are today, but stayed for 8 days. So -- arrangements had to be made for the mohel (who was also a rabbi) to spend Shabbos near the hospital, and leave his bris tools (his 'bris kit') in the hospital, since he couldn't drive on Shabbos and couldn't carry where there was no eruv.
The parents of the newborn were unaware of many details of Jewish law. The day before the bris, the father of the newborn called the mohel and said, 'Rabbi, you know, it's going to be really cold tomorrow. Are you sure I can't give you a ride to the hospital?' But the polite rabbi declined, saying "It'll be a nice day for a walk. I really don't mind walking."
The bris took place as scheduled the next day -- and yes, the rabbi walked even though it was bitterly cold. After the bris, the rabbi took the parents aside. The rabbi, showing special sensitivity said;
"I know it wasn't easy making for you to make all these arrangements. But you should know that you've done a wonderful thing by making sure that your son had a proper bris with an Orthodox mohel. Now -- just wait and see -- something special is going to come from this boy of yours, in the merit or the great mitzvah of bris milah.'
Do you know what ever happened to the baby boy whose parents exerted themselves to do that one mitzvah properly, and to make sure he had a proper bris?
That little boy grew up to be the rabbi of Nusach Hari Bnai Zion in St. Louis, Missouri -- and his name is Ze'ev Smason.
One smile might bring a $22 million donation for a new synagogue, like it did with Anne Sheiber. One good word can alter the course of history, like it did for Eglon the King of Moab. One good word can empower a child who needs encouragement, or a person who's down on their luck -- and could literally be a lifesaver. A single mitzvah is a butterfly that creates a spiritual ripple effect that can achieve great things.
On Yom Kippur we look for a strategy to tilt the scales of judgment in our favor. One smile, a good word, one sincerely performed mitzvah; it can change our universe.