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Zaidie and the Two Dollar Bill #790

08/11/2023 03:49:39 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashat Re'eh, Deuteronomy 15:7

  • If there is a needy person among not harden your heart of shut your hand..." (Deuteronomy 15:7)

    Zaidie and the Two Dollar Bill

There are defining moments in our lives, those which forever shape us. For me, one of those moments occurred one Sunday in early 1961, when my grandfather Nissan decided to take me on an excursion to downtown Montreal to attend a screening of 101 Dalmatians.

I remember bouncing on the cushy front seat of his black 1952 Dodge as he peered over the wheel, navigating the steep roads of Montreal, and found a parking space a block from the Strand Theater.

For a boy of eight years old, this was a big event. Not only did I get to spend some time with my beloved grandfather, but I actually was able to enter a movie theater for the first time.

Until 1961, children under 16 were not permitted to attend movies in Montreal. Following a 1927 fire at the Laurier Palace Theatre, which claimed 78 victims, most of them children, a law was passed limiting attendance to movies to those over 16.

The law, fueled by religious authorities, claimed that the cinema “ruins the health of children, weakens their lungs, troubles their imagination, excites their nervous system, harms their education, overexcites their sinful ideas, and leads to immorality.”

But in 1961, after the Quebec government amended its building and smoking laws, movies theaters were once again open to children.

I can't remember much about the movie, except that my Zaidie was not pleased that a small package of mints cost thirty-five cents. But as we walked back to my grandfather's car, as I crunched through my last mint, an event occurred which I will never forget.

A man approached us, stopped in front of my grandfather, and said, “Monsieur, could you please help me out so I can get something to eat.” I noticed the sway in his stance, and the smell on his breath.

My grandfather smiled, pulled out a two-dollar bill from his pocket, handed it to the man, and in his Yiddish tainted French, told him, “There is a very good diner around the corner—I think you'll enjoy the food there.”

Watching the man walk away, I looked up at my grandfather, and commented with a great sense of insight, “Zaidie, I think that man was drunk. I think he's going to use the money to buy beer.”

My grandfather gently smiled and replied, “Zin—(grandson), if five people come to me and say they are hungry, and perhaps four of them are not, how can I take a chance that the one who is truly in need will walk away hungry? “I would rather waste eight dollars than deprive the one truly in need.” These words have guided me for more than sixty years.

There are many who remind me, upon hearing this story which I tell often, that this is a nice Canadian vignette, but that it does not apply to the rough streets of New York or other American cities.

But country or city have nothing to do with it. My grandfather was not a regular synagogue goer, but he carried Torah in his heart. He was truly good, and the mere mention of this story, and the writing of these words, still touches my heart and shapes my attitude towards those in need.

It is written in this week's Torah portion that “if however, there is a needy person among not harden your heart or shut your hand...” Deuteronomy 15:7 Adds the Talmud, “It is forbidden to insult the poor, or accuse them of being undeserving.”

Is this principle a naïve one? In my view “no.” For while the Torah teaches that while there will always be rich and poor among us, Judaism has no tolerance for extreme poverty, hunger, or homelessness.

In Jewish tradition, when someone comes up to you—especially in the presence of a child—and asks for food, we must incline ourselves towards the positive.  These days, there are so many reasons to say “no” especially when someone asks for our help.

We close our hands to non-profits or other charities as we blame high administration costs. We point to the high salary of the CEO. We close our hand because we fear that the dollar or two or more that we part with will be misspent.

Yet, in the words of my mentor Rabbi Joe Ehrenkranz, whose memoirs I am currently editing, “if we look for excuses for not giving, there will be many. But if so, hospital foundations, charities, or those on the street will remain forever lacking in food, shelter and the technology to heal.”

We as a people believe in imbuing our children with optimism and compassion, perhaps in order to counterbalance an often pessimistic and cynical world. Notes the Torah, “There will never cease to be needy ones in this land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsmen in your land.”

This is not a suggestion. It is a commandment. In my younger years I once asked a rabbi how he could navigate the streets of New York and meet this requirement.

He replied, “Is it that hard to put a few quarters or dollar bills in your pocket? Often, I hear people spend more time defending why they bypass those in need than contemplating the blessing they would perform by parting with a quarter or a dollar. 

And so this week, and every year as we read Parsahat Re’eh (“See”), as we are commanded to open our hands to those may be food or shelter challenged, I remember Zaidie Nissan.

The fact that this story continues as one of my life pillars, speaks volumes about the effect that a mitzvah that we model can have on a child or grandchild. It was January 2013 when Patte and I visited the University of Cambridge in England and walked our daughter Sarah to the gates of Emmanuel College to defend her doctorate.

As we weathered the crisp streets of Cambridge on that cool morning, Sarah led the way with her books and papers in hand. A few blocks away from our destination, Sarah noticed a young woman sitting over a heat vent. The woman was clad in torn sweaters and blankets.

Sarah paused for a moment, reversed her course, walked back a few feet, bent down, and gave the woman a ten-pound note, holding her hand for a moment and exchanging with her a few quiet words.

The event happened so quickly, I barely realized what had occurred. And when it dawned upon me what Sarah had done, I cocked my head and smiled at her. She stood up and met my gaze. “That is how I was raised,” she said as we continued on our way.

At that moment, I remembered Zaidie Nissan, and that drunk man, and that ageless lesson which he taught me. And last month, our four year old granddaughter, Clara, handed me a plastic container of coins she had collected to forward to those in need. And so it continues.

As Patte and I revel in the growth our children and grandchildren, I realize that each of us is part of a chain of life, from the Torah, through Moses, through the generations, through our grandparents and parents, and into the future.

We are a people who, despite everything, incline ourselves towards optimism I don’t remember the details of that movie in 1961, but I remember exactly where I was when my Zaidie gave a two-dollar bill to that person in need.

Some days when I visit Montreal, I park my car not too far from where Zaidie parked his. And, walking to that same spot 60 years later, I think of him, and all my grandparents. I remember those scattered bits and pieces of love and wisdom which form the basis of our lives, as I pledge to do the same for my grandchildren.

And my heart becomes whole.

Shabbat Shalom from Jerusalem. Kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Wed, February 21 2024 12 Adar I 5784