When I first read Sara Yocheved Rigler’s biography Emunah with Love and Chicken Soup: The Story of Rebbetzin Henny Machlis, the Brooklyn-born Girl Who Became a Jerusalem Legend, I did not realize the tremendous impact it would have on my life and the life of my family.
Throughout many years of her life, Rebbetzin Machlis lived with her large family in a small apartment in Jerusalem. She and her husband, Rabbi Mordechai Machlis, shlita, welcomed many guests for every Shabbos meal – and I mean “many.” With three meals each Shabbos, they hosted at least 200 people nearly every week of the year.
The tradition in the Machlis family was to open their doors for Shabbos meals, never knowing exactly how many people would show up. Travelers ventured to Israel from far and wide to watch this unusual family practice the mitzvah of hachnassas orchim (inviting guests) to the maximum degree. Everyone comes, from many places: seminaries and yeshivos, Israelis and tourists, wealthy and destitute, homeless and lonely, secular and religious.
Some come to quench their curiosity, and others arrive in search for a deeper sense of spirituality. Some simply need a place to eat. It’s like a mini taste of the ingathering of the exiles. Everyone is honored, respected, and appreciated for who they are and what they might have to share.
In Sara Rigler’s book she describes how one Friday evening a man brought his large dog. Some of the guests had allergies and others were terrified. Rabbi Machlis gently asked the man if he could keep his pet outside. The man erupted with anger, calling Rabbi Machlis a hypocrite and imbecile, berating his gracious host in front of hundreds of people in response to a perfectly reasonable request.
How did Rabbi Machlis react to this chutzpah? He sat listening quietly and nodding his head humbly. After the distraught man finished his loud outburst, Rabbi Machlis apologized for upsetting him!
Yet this wasn’t unusual behavior from the guests who frequented the Machlis home. Unstable, disturbed, emotionally vulnerable people would sometimes scream and yell, break or even steal the Machlis’ personal belongings. The way the Machlises’ never reacted negatively to their guests was something beyond me.
How was it possible that they continued to host so many people from so many backgrounds with such dignity and grace? It was with their true, genuine ahavas Yisrael.
And this was week after week!
One Shabbos I shared some of these stories with my family. I told them that I myself had once eaten a Shabbos meal at the Machlis home and saw the kindness and simple joy they exuded and gave to others. My son was very blown away, as was evident by the look on his face. Yet with his ever-entrepreneurial mind, he quickly asked, “Wow! Do they pay for this all on their own, or do they ask for donations?”
I answered that they made tremendous financial sacrifices in order to fulfill this mitzvah. Instead of spending money on things they wanted for themselves, they invested everything they had into providing for others. They prioritized hosting Shabbos guests over all other non-essentials in their lives.
Since 1979, when they made aliyah, the Machlis family has been hosting these Shabbos meals. In the beginning, they handled the financial part completely on their own, even when there were times that they had no money for groceries and had maxed out their credit cards.
Devoted to this precious mitzvah, they even took out a second mortgage on their home to have the resources to continue. Though they were not a family of great wealth, this mitzvah was a family priority. They davened that Hashem would continue to support their efforts and eventually they established a U.S.A. tax deductible fund called the Jerusalem Chesed-Machlis Foundation, that enables many people to participate and share in their amazing chessed.
And it isn’t just financial support that people want to offer. Preparing enormous amounts of kugel and cake, cholent and chicken, soup and salads takes a lot of time, physical effort and energy. After Shabbos there are mountains of dishes to wash by hand and a huge mess to clean up in an apartment turned upside down.
Though this was a family enterprise that everyone contributed to, volunteers also wanted to participate and have a “piece of the action.” But one Thursday evening there were what looked like hundreds of potatoes that still needed to be peeled and the usual crew of helpers weren’t there with Rebbetzin Machlis. Though she was happily busy preparing everything on her own, there was no way the job could be done in time. But she wasn’t worried about it. She just started peeling, knowing that Hashem would help her.
Out of the blue, a young bachur showed up and offered to start peeling potatoes. She graciously accepted his offer, although even with the two of them, the job would still take hours to finish and they were running out of time. Suddenly, the bachur dashed out and gathered another 40 bachurim from a local yeshiva. The potatoes were done in minutes.
Even with donations, how enough money came through every week to buy $2000 worth of food was another miracle. Small and big miracles happened to the Machlis family all of the time. In fact, they lived by them.
Soon after reading Sara Rigler’s book, we had an opportunity to visit to Israel. We wanted to take our children to offer our help to the Machlis family with their Shabbos preparations. I wanted our children to see this story first hand.
Everything was so organized and flowing smoothly when we arrived that there really wasn’t much they needed for us to do! Nonetheless, to give our young children the opportunity to feel like they were good helpers, they found odds and ends for them to do.
Just before we left, we gave a donation. As we piled back into the cab, my children expressed how beautiful it was to finally meet the famous Machlis family.
Our trip to Israel included being in Jerusalem for Pesach. The seder at our hotel was scheduled for 9:00 p.m. The dining room was supposed to open at 7:00 p.m., so we came down early. We discovered there had been a scheduling error; the dining room was not going to open until 9:00 p.m.
Another man was fuming at this news and was waiting impatiently to be seated. He appeared to be mentally disturbed, yelling at the waiters, not only for their scheduling mistake, but for seating him alone.
“How could you place someone alone? Seat me with another family!” he yelled.
When the staff didn’t respond to his demands, the man moved his seat to a random private table for another family and declared, “Too bad, they will have to get over it. No one wants to sit alone!”
I had the fleeting thought to invite him to our seder, but hesitated. Our children are little and will be going to bed as soon as possible – we can’t have him at our table.
Then our son asked me, “Mommy, can we invite that man to our seder?”
I was so touched by his concern, how could I say no? So I responded, “I think that sounds great! Let’s go ask Abba.” While we searched for my husband, the man stormed out. We quickly found my husband and told him about this distraught man. He was extremely moved that Josh wanted to include him, and of course, he also agreed. Together, they went to search for our potential guest. When they finally found him they invited him to join us.
This man, who just minutes before was in a fit of rage, quickly had tears in his eyes and joyously accepted our offer.
That Pesach seder turned out to be one of Josh’s favorite events of the entire vacation!
My heart was bursting with joy that my son and my husband had compassion for a stranger like this man. Surely this was a “Machlis moment” inspired by the Machlis example.
Our family has now coined the term a “Machlis moment,” and we like to use it regularly. Examples include anything from giving our friends our last piece of gum, to refraining from responding in anger when someone says something that hurts or angers us.
I realize that I can’t be Rebbetzin Henny Machlis, z”l. I can’t even pretend to try. But in everyday situations that require compassion for others, I can strive to “choose up” and create “Machlis moments” for myself and those around me.
We aren’t supposed to be someone else. But we can strive to be the best version of ourselves that we can be. And that is achieved one “Machlis Moment” at a time.