(Her father was overwhelmed with making a parnasa and caring for his injured wife.)
Luckily, my friend and her younger sister ended up at the tiny 2-bedroom apartment of Rav Finkel, one of the Gedolei Hador and the Rosh Yeshiva of Mir, where she and her sister remained for the next two years.
It was Erev Shabbat and the home was bustling and crowded with family and Shabbat preparations. The Finkel girls got the bath ready and placed Leah and her sister in the tub. With her life upended, the bustling and crowding, and the water warmer than she was used to, Leah freaked out and shrieked, “It’s too hot! It’s too hot!”
Immediately, arms plunged into the water to check and there was a rush to add cold water. (It actually wasn’t too hot, but they wanted to accommodate her.) Voices around her called out to reassure her that it really wasn’t too hot, that she had nothing to fear.
But overwhelmed by her suddenly upended life, Leah cried out, “They’re burning me, they’re burning me!”
She was immediately whisked out of the bath until they got the temperature down. (Her sister was fine, by the way.)
Later that evening, they all went to set up the meal at the yeshiva. Leah was asked if she could run to the yeshiva kitchen to bring a necessary item.
Leah complied, but to get to the kitchen, she needed to go past Rav Finkel and the other talmidei chachamim congregating around a table in the hall. Feeling very shy about being seen by these great men, she ducked her head and broke into a scampering run in the hopes that she could carry out her mission without any of the great sages noticing her.
But one noticed her anyway.
Rav Finkel grabbed hold of a fold of her loose skirt with two of his fingers as she flew by.
Blushing and cringing, she froze.
“So, Leah'leh!” he said, playfully. “They're burning you, they're burning you! Eh?”
A smile crossed Leah’s face, but other than that, she couldn’t move or speak.
Then Rav Finkel grew serious and said firmly, “NO. No one is ever going to ‘burn’ you here. I won’t let them! You have nothing to be afraid of here.”
And he let her go.
As Leah recalled this memory, the sheer joy of it flowed up her body, expanding her face into a smile, the pleasure beaming from her face.
Her arms were elbow-deep in a sink full of dishes and baby bottles, but she looked like she was in ecstasy from the recollection.
Later, I pondered why that memory brought her so much joy, even 40 years later.
- Despite the fact that Rav Finkel was occupied with other rabbanim and Torah matters, and despite the fact that Leah was trying very hard not to be seen, Rav Finkel noticed her anyway -- which meant she was important enough to be noticed in such a situation.
- Despite the important and honorable rabbis he was with and despite the fact that they were engaged in a Torah conversation, Rav Finkel felt that she was important enough for him to pause all that to give her some attention.
- Rav Finkel knew her name and even used the affectionate form of her name.
- In order for Rav Finkel to have known the Burning Hot Bath story, either he asked his wife and daughters how Leah was doing and was interested enough to listen to the story AND retain it OR his wife and daughters felt the need to tell him (in much the way a mother relates her children’s antics to their father) and he was interested enough to listen to the story AND retain it. He listened and remembered despite everything he had to do with his own family, running a yeshiva, and preparing for Shabbat.
- He understood how to reassure her. First, he made her laugh. Then he spoke seriously, understanding how she must be feeling in the situation and reassured her. (And she is this way as an adult, too: Make her laugh, and then get serious.)
- Obviously, Leah didn't need Rav Finkel's protection; the rebbetzin and the children were all very good people who would never hurt her (and didn't) in any way. (Ultimately, her memories of the Finkel home were very positive.) Yet he declared "I won't let them!" just to make Leah understand that she was under his personal protection.
All in all, Rav Finkel showed this powerless little girl that he considered her important and that she was cared for and safe.
Truly great people make even the smallest people feel great, too.