Rice in on the menu this Shabbat at Shabbos House. And its also the subject of a story that was often told by the Lubavitch Yeshiva students (including Raizy’s grandfather R’ Hirschel Fox and Mendel’s grandfather R’ Moshe Rubin) who escaped Europe and survived the Holocaust in Shanghai China (then under Japan) thanks to the life-saving Sugihara visas.
These were war years, they were refugees and food was limited and rationed. As you can imagine rice was a big staple of their diet. The yeshiva didn’t have a regular cook, so the students took turns on kitchen duty preparing the meals for their peers. One day, one particular student had his turn in the kitchen and he had no prior experience cooking rice. He figured each person could eat about a cup of rice, and so he measured out one cup per person and filled the pot with water, turned up the flame and went off to pray. Little did he know that rice expands as it absorbs water and one cup of raw rice could feed 3-5 people! Depending on the meal, it can even feed as many as 7-8 people!
While he was off praying, the rice pot exploded and there was cooked rice everywhere – on the walls, on the floor, even on the ceiling. It would have been humorous, and years later we can laugh about it, but these were war years, food was scarce, even a basic staple like rice was hard to get. This is why none of the students, while sharing the story, would say the name of the person. Same with Raizy’s grandfather, who was especially careful and sensitive to people’s dignity and privacy.
There is some speculation that this could have been my grandfather, Rabbi Moshe Rubin. He loved to pray, that’s for sure, it was his hallmark. And he also loved when people had ample sustenance, food or livelihood or whatever they needed. So we can see him wanted to ensure there was plenty for everyone. We can’t know for sure, but it’s possible it was him. He wasn’t removed from this world, to be sure, he was earthy and deeply human and richly relevant, but he didn’t always have everything figured out. Perhaps the ratio of cooked to uncooked rice was one of those things.
But what do we learn from this story? Why was it shared with us? What’s the message?
Many things in life we look at as a grain of rice. It feels small, miniscule, insignificant. What we might not realize is how this seemingly insignificant grain of rice can expand and grow! It can double or triple in size!
Many decisions we make during college years or teen years, don’t feel that important. We tend to minimize or underestimate them. But we forget how these little things grow inside us, and they grow around us, and they can become much bigger and more important, for better or for worse. It expands, it explodes, it grows with time and the more it absorbs. Sometimes a little act can make a big difference. Sometimes a good deed can go a very long way, snowballing as it goes. This is true in the financial world (think growth of stocks and other previously underrated investments) and when it comes to trust (where little things can make a big difference in building or eroding trust), and in many other areas of life.
A mitzvah can feel like this. Maybe it can feel quick or fleeting or small in some way. But as Tanya 25 reminds us that within a mitzvah’s finite experience lies its infinite dimension. Never underestimate the cosmic impact and long-term personal effect of a single Mitzvah. Certainly when we keep them coming!
So we asked students at the Shabbos meal to share examples of that little “grain of rice” which expands and grows and becomes much larger in life than we ever imagined:
Some compared it to a balloon, to an air-mattress, or event to anger that blows up out of proportion. Others said it reminded them of an idea when it catches on and spreads to others. Or of a chit-chat conversation that ends up building into a long-term friendship. Or a random one-time Shabbat dinner invite from a friend that turned them into a regular who just can’t leave.