Rabbi Avi Shafran is the public affairs director of Agudath Israel of America, the Haredi advocacy and social service organization. On the side he writes a weekly column that goes out by email and appears in various publications and websites. I get it in my mailbox and I almost always open it up to see where he’s going this week. Sometimes it’s a predictable polemic in defense of Orthodoxy and Orthodox Jews; sometimes it’s a not-so-predictable comment on current events. And every so often it is an observation about the world and humanity and the soul that can take your breath away.
His latest column is an example of the third category. It’s an observation about the majestic beauty of a waterfall he went to see that can be reached only by driving through the gritty downtown of Paterson, N.J., and what it taught him about human relations.
We’re not big vacationers, both by temperament and economics. Most trips we take, boruch Hashem, are for family simchos and such. But we try to take two or three days off each summer for a car trip – in recent years, in search of waterfalls. We enjoy the sounds and sight of cascading water, are rejuvenated by the grandeur of the Creator’s handiwork and often find that we actually learn something – beyond geology – from the experiences. We’ve found some wondrous falls in upstate New York and Pennsylvania. But a waterfall we almost missed, en route to another one more distant, was the “Great Falls,” a part of the Passaic River. They are said to be the second-highest falls on the east coast (second only to Niagara). More striking, though, than the mighty torrent of water the falls send thundering over a rocky ledge is their location: downtown Paterson. One drives through grimy streets looking for them, almost certain that some mistake has been made, that there must be another Paterson in New Jersey, or that it’s all a joke and the “falls” are only effluent from some industrial sewage pipe. And after managing to find the sign and entering a rocky, rudimentary parking lot, things don’t look much more promising. After a moment’s walk, though, one is transported suddenly into another world, one of astounding power and beauty.
His lesson is that you can find beauty in places you least expect it, including in people who you’re inclined to dismiss because of what they’re like on the outside. The column is written for his fellow Orthodox Jews, and my guess is he’s referring at least partly to non-Orthodox Jews, but the lesson is pretty universal.
Something more, though, was also made sharper by the Paterson falls: How often does it happen that we find certain other people… well, tiresome… grating… unpleasant? For some of us, ahavas Yisrael [love of fellow Jews], despite all the homage we may pay it, can be one of the most challenging mitzvos we face. Klal Yisrael [the Jewish people], after all, is easy to love; Reb Yisrael [Jew Sixpack], oftentimes, less so. Yet each of our fellows, no matter how superficially unimpressive or even disagreeable, holds a spark of holiness. Well-hidden though it may be, somewhere, in its own place, it glimmers.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).