The minchah, or afternoon, prayer is the shortest of the three daily services. Moreover, the time for this prayer often arrives while we are still immersed in our work. People are tired and busy, and it is difficult to divest oneself of the effects of a day at the office in order to generate proper intention and emotional involvement. Thus, little minchah often receives short shrift. Paradoxically, in spite of these seeming disadvantages, minchah is a uniquely sublime and transcendent service. In the chassidic view of things, it is invariably the small, the inconspicuous, the inconvenient action that is of greatest consequence. Although this concept is elucidated in holy books, the Almighty saw fit to teach it to me by devising circumstances in which I would learn it through an experience.

It has long been my privilege to speak at the Shabbaton held every year at the end of December in Crown Heights. I would usually arrive in New York on Thursday or Friday, and leave the following Sunday. I always scheduled my return flight to allow me the opportunity to join the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s minyan (prayer quorum) for minchah on Sunday afternoon.

On one such occasion many years ago, I had arranged to fly back to Montreal at 4:30 PM. That Sunday morning, I began to worry about my return trip. I am a very nervous traveler, and I generally insist on being at the airport at least a full hour in advance of my flight. Why had I decided to leave so early? The Rebbe’s minyan generally began at 3:15, and usually ended at 3:30. Allowing myself 15 minutes to return to where I was staying, I could leave for LaGuardia no earlier that 3:45. What if traffic was heavy? What if a tire went flat? What if a tree had fallen across the Interboro Parkway, and it being Sunday, the road crews took their sweet time in removing it? I calmed myself with the thought that these possibilities were very unlikely, and that if I left at 3:45 sharp I would probably make my flight.

I then embarked on my yearly nerve-racking ritual of arranging for a ride to LaGuardia Airport. In those days there was only one car service in Crown Heights, and it was run by chassidim, a class of people for whom time means nothing. I walked into the storefront office and told them I wanted a car to take me to LaGuardia at 3:45. I emphasized (several times) that 3:45 does not mean 3:50, or even 3:46. I was not interested in approximations. The proprietor, in soothing tones, assured me of a car at precisely 3:45. They were professionals with considerable experience in this business, and there was absolutely nothing to worry about.

I started to leave, but I remembered something as I got to the door. I turned to the boss and asked him whether he wouldn’t care to know the address to which the car should be sent. “Oh yes, of course, sorry.” You see the sort of people I was dealing with.

By 3:00 PM I was packed into the little synagogue in which the Rebbe prayed minchah. Every student attending one of the two local yeshivahs, as well as numerous neighborhood residents and out-of-town guests, were competing for space in that small room. My bones ached and I couldn’t breathe, but this did not trouble me. This was normal. What bothered me was the time. 3:15, 3:16, 3:17. At 3:20 the Rebbe came in, and minchah began. I tried to concentrate on my prayer, reminding myself that I was in the same minyan as my holy Rebbe. However, my overwrought brain simply would not mind. It perversely dwelt on my imminent betrayal by the car service.

In the course of my struggles with myself, I became aware of a soft sobbing sound. I had already raced through my prayer, and I was able to glance sideways at my neighbor. He was a tall, thin, bearded man, dressed in chassidic garb. His eyes were closed and tears streamed down his cheeks. His face was intense with concentration. He prayed slowly and with obvious effort.

In spite of myself, I was touched. I could not imagine what sort of terrible trouble lay behind that heartfelt prayer. Perhaps he had a sick child at home, or some crushing financial burden. I assumed that he was an out-of-town visitor seeking the Rebbe’s aid, and I could not help feeling guilty about my own silly preoccupations with the car service, the airport, etc. I mentally wished him the best and hoped that things would turn out well for him.

Minchah completed, I raced back to my host’s home, and by 3:42 I was awaiting the promised car with fire in my eyes, certain that it would not show. At precisely 3:45, a noisy, rusty station wagon, belching blue exhaust, rolled up, and the driver waved me in. I couldn’t believe it. I put my suitcase in the back and then climbed in next to the driver.

My second shock came with the realization that the driver was none other than my heartbroken neighbor at minchah. As we drove off, the driver hummed a jolly chassidic melody, and seemed quite happy. We began to talk. Cautiously I asked him about his welfare: his health, the health of his family and the state of his finances. Each question elicited a hearty (if somewhat perplexed) “Thank G‑d.” Moreover, his wife was soon due to give birth, and he was in a particularly excited and happy mood. Gradually, it began to dawn on me that the remarkable outpouring of the heart that I had witnessed earlier was this man’s ordinary, daily minchah.