Mike Esmond, owner of a construction company in Gulf Breeze, Florida, wrote a check this month for $7,600 to pay off overdue utility balances for 114 residents of his city. All of them were at risk of their gas and water being turned off before his magnanimous gesture. His community in the Panhandle has been hit hard, not only by the pandemic but because they haven’t yet recovered from Hurricane Sally in September.
This isn’t the first time he showed such generosity to total strangers for seemingly no reason at all. In November of 2019 Mike walked into City Hall in Gulf Breeze and cut a check for $4,300 to pay for 36 local residents whose utilities bills were overdue and about to be disconnected. Joanne Oliver, the utility billing supervisor for Gulf Breeze, told the NY Times, “I’ve been in customer service more than 20 years, and this had never happened.”
What would motivate someone to give money that they worked so hard for to people they have never met?
Last year at this time, Mr. Esmond opened his own utility bill and his memory flashed back to the winter of 1983, when he was broke and his own gas and water service was shut off over his holidays. He described, “I had three young girls at home at the time, and the temperature got down to 6 degrees, with ice and frost on the inside of the house. I’ve lived that where I didn’t have a dollar in my pocket to care for my family, so I know what it’s like to really be broke and in need. I wanted to see if I could help people that might be experiencing the same thing — where they couldn’t pay their bills and their utilities were going to be shut off around [holiday] time.”
When asked if he plans to continue this practice next year, Esmond said, “I’m 74 years old and I don’t even know if I’m even going to be here next year, but I can guarantee you one thing: If I am, I’ll do something to help people out.” After the story of Esmond’s generosity went public, others began to give in the same way. As of this week, his city has received additional anonymous donations to cover utility bills totaling several thousand dollars.
Mike’s generosity launched a wave of generosity from others and it all began with his transforming his own personal experience and pain into a way to prevent others from going through it.
When Yosef reveals himself to his brothers in this week’s Parsha, he tells them, don’t be upset and don’t be scared, I have no desire for revenge and I am not upset. Your selling me to Egypt put me in a position to rise to power and to be able to help you and others. In his Eish Tamid, Rav Yisroel Meir Druk asks, Yosef’s attitude is understandable with regard to the ten years he was viceroy in charge of the economy, but not all twenty -two years of their separation had been the same. What about the twelve years he had languished in prison unjustly? How could he reflect positively on that painful period?
Explains Rav Druk, Yosef didn’t see his time in prison as different than his time in the palace. He credited his empathy, care and concern for those who were hungry, underprivileged and feeling alone to his time in prison when he felt that way himself. Yosef understood that he never would have had the ten years of prosperity in Egypt without first enduring the twelve years of suffering that taught him, prepared him, and inspired him to help others avoid what he had felt.
When I saw the story about Mike Esmond it reminded me of a similar story I have shared before. Each year at the Rabbinical Council of America convention, an award is given to a chaplain. A few years ago when the award was given to Rav Zvi Karpel, he described what had driven him to work in chaplaincy:
I lost my father when I was five and a half years old. This coming yahrzeit will mark his 60th. Put in other terms, by the time I was Bar Mitzvah, I had been saying yizkor for half of my life. My mother z”l raised me on her own. She herself became seriously ill my junior year in high school, and passed away my sophomore year in college. I relate these events because in retrospect, I feel that losing both my parents as I did had a tremendous impact on my life and my decision making.
I grew up in Rockville Centre, New York, a town on Long Island void of any Orthodox presence. I attended the public schools there, and received my religious education at an afternoon Hebrew school in the Conservative synagogue. My first real exposure to Orthodoxy was spending a Shabbos at my Kitah Bet teacher’s home in Far Rockaway, Queens.
For college studies, I went away to the State University of New York at Albany. It was that fall that I decided to become Shomer Shabbos, at least as far as I knew how to be one. I emerged as one of five yamulka-wearing students on a campus that arguably boasted 4,000-5000 Jewish students.
I knew that I needed a plan as to what I was going to do after graduation. Since my yiddishkeit is what most prominently drove my thoughts, feelings and actions, I decided I wanted to become a Rabbi. In addition, I realized that having never gone to yeshiva, I needed to accelerate my Jewish education, so I decided to go learn in Israel. When I returned here to the States, I was accepted into the semicha program at RIETS. Overlapping with the learning in the yeshiva, I matriculated into the Wurzweiler School of Social Work, and earned my MSW in conjunction with my semicha.
After working as a social worker for a couple of years in a day program for a Jewish nursing home, I began working as the full-time Rabbi at the Daughters of Israel. There I have remained for the last 32-plus years.
If I were to relate to you the single most significant aspect of my work, I would say it’s providing the spiritual and pastoral care to family members when their loved one is dying. In thinking way back to the experience with my own mother, I can tell you that when I heard her voice over the telephone and sensed she was close to the end, without hesitation I made the decision to leave the university to be with her. It turned out that I was to be at her bedside for her last week.
In reflecting back on that time, I know that I could have really used the support of a chaplain; I also know that I was not only a son at the bedside, I was my mother’s chaplain, walking with her during her final journey. The Shulchan Aruch tells us in hilchos kibbud av v’aim, “Chayav l’chvodo, afilu achar moso”. A person is obligated to honor one’s parents, even once they have passed. I would like to think that my work with residents and their family members at the end of life provides some measure of kavod to my parents, may their memories be blessed.
Hashem tells Avraham, היה ברכה, don’t just be blessed, be a blessing to others. Yosef remembered what it was like to be hungry and in pain and used those feelings to be inspired to feed others. Orphaned at a young age, Rabbi Karpel knew what it was like to face loss alone and he turned it into decades of helping support people in their time of loss and need. Mike Esmond appreciated what it means to be cold and scared without water or power and he used it to be motivated to pay off the utility bills of those who were about to have them shut off.
We have all gone through challenges and struggles, be they financial, physical, emotional or spiritual. We can look back at them with resentment and bitterness or try to forget them altogether. Or, we can invoke those memories to be moved to make a difference in someone’s life to help them avoid the pain we know well and to be their blessing.
Think about people going through something you might be able to relate to. Did you receive a scholarship as a child? If you have the capacity now, help makes sure others can get the help they need. Have you overcome an illness? Perhaps those going through it now could benefit from your experience and your support. Did you struggle with infertility, loneliness, or painful loss? If so, you are in a position to guide and help those going through that now.
Let’s all try to be like Mike. What have you gone through in your life and how will you use it to help others?