Brother, can you spare some tzedakah?
TorahParshat Behar

Brother, can you spare some tzedakah?

Leviticus 25:1 – 26:2

It was a cold night in May, 20 years ago, and I had just finished a very satisfying meal on the Upper West Side of New York City. My belly was full as I was on my way to see the Broadway show “42nd Street,” when I was presented with the classic question, “Brother, can you spare some tzedakah?”

I was surprised by the wording. “Tzedakah” seemed to be an unusual word coming from a wandering African American wearing a cross, in search of a handout. I quickly realized that she knew me well enough by my kippah and the kosher restaurant I exited to pull on my Jewish righteous strings.

She didn’t ask for charity, a gift of the heart, as the Latin root caritas indicates. Rather, she asked for tzedakah, righteous giving, from the root tzedek, justice.

Surprised by her ease with the word, I was taken aback for a moment and knew that I had to do something. I had no spare change readily accessible and I was in a rush. I didn’t want to ignore her request, so I reached into my leftovers bag and gave her an NYC-style rainbow-colored cookie, the kind that looks more like a cake than a cookie. I felt good about my action.

“Please, I hope that you enjoy this.”

“What’s this?” she responded.

“I thought you might enjoy this cookie.”

“I would prefer money.”

“But I have no spare change; all I have is this cookie.”

“Listen, I don’t steal or do drugs. I just need money.”

The conversation continued for a few seconds as she escorted me down the street. Flanked by 30 of my eighth-grade American and Israeli students, I asked her to leave us alone. The students and I talked about the need for respect in giving and receiving. We talked about how sometimes you can only give so much.

I was grateful to this woman for helping me to fulfill the mitzvah, the Jewish sacred responsibility of giving to the poor. I was particularly grateful that this happened during the week when we read the Torah portion Behar, because in it we find the verse:

“If your brother becomes impoverished and his means falter in your proximity, you shall strengthen him — proselyte or resident — so that he will live with you.”

According to this verse, our person in need is either a member of the Jewish community for a long time (a brother), one who joined our community through conversion, or one who simply lives among us (Jewish adjacent). This is how I felt about the woman. She clearly was one who lived within a Jewish community, the Upper West Side. Her use of the word “tzedakah” showed her familiarity with our ways.

I felt good about my interaction with her and thought that maybe the next time I was approached I might do more than give a cookie, but I knew that there would be many other times. I went to “42nd Street,” the place where the underclass “can meet the elite, 42nd Street.” The rhythm of the dancing feet helped me to forget about the woman.

Four hours later, 10 blocks further north, she approached me again.

“Brother, can you spare some tzedakah?”

I stopped and smiled.

“Hi, I’m Rabbi Symons, we met earlier.” She was puzzled.

“I gave you the cookie.”

“Yeah, I remember.”

I asked her name. Teresa told me her story, how she doesn’t use drugs or alcohol. How she doesn’t steal. She just needs help getting by.

This time, even though I had more cookies to share, I searched my pocket for the change I avoided four hours earlier.

I gave her a dollar. We wished each other “God bless you.” I never thought that our first anonymous exchange would be repeated.

Teresa seemed to fill her time asking for handouts. It seemed to be a way of life for her.

I wonder why I changed my response to Teresa between our first and second interactions. Was it compassion? Was it the joy of the show? Was it persistence? Maybe it had to do with Rashi, the great medieval Torah commentator, who teaches we should understand the verse above in this way:

“Do not leave your brother by himself until he has descended and fallen at which point it will be difficult to raise him up. Rather, uphold him from the moment of the failure of his means. To what is this similar? To a heavy load on a donkey. As long as it is on the donkey, one person can hold the donkey up and keep him from falling to the ground. But, once the donkey and the load fall to the ground, five people will not be
able to put him on his feet again.”

I learned a lesson 20 years ago in NYC: Do not wait until someone falls down to help them; support them before they fall. I learned that lesson 20 years ago in NYC and have carried it with me through my work in Boston and Pittsburgh, through Temple Sinai and the JCC Center for Loving Kindness. That lesson has served as the basis of my work ever since. Pittsburgh has been the perfect place to strive to help.

Now, as Barbara and I prepare to relocate to the NYC area to be with family and friends, I’ll continue to carry it with me and act accordingly. I hope that you will continue to carry it with you and act accordingly here in Pittsburgh, too.

It has been an honor to do this mitzvah and so many others with you. Thank you. PJC

Rabbi Ron Symons is the senior director of Jewish Life at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Clergy Association.

read more: