Parashat Re’eh, Deuteronomy 15:7
Zaidie and the Two Dollar Bill
There are defining moments in our lives, those which shape us forever.
For me, one of those moments occurred one Sunday in early 1961, when my grandfather Nissan (of blessed memory) decided to take me on an excursion to downtown Montreal to attend a screening of 101 Dalmatians.
I remember bouncing in 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 theater.
For a boy of eight years old, this was a big event.
Not only did I get to spend some time with my 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, claiming 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 opened 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 shaped me.
A man came up to us, stopped in our path, and said, “Sir, 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 observed with a sense of great revelation, “Zaidie, I think that man was drunk. I think he’s going to use the money to buy some beer.”
My grandfather gently smiled and replied, “Zinele — (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 are words that have guided me for almost sixty years.
There are many who remind me that this is a nice Canadian story, and that it does not apply to the rough streets of New York or other American cities.
But I shake my head. 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.
It is written in this week’s Torah portion that “if however, there is a needy person among you...do not harden your heart or shut your hand...”
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 not say “no.”
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 so 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 instill by parting with fifty cents.”
And so this week, as we are commanded to open our hands to the needy, I remember Zaidie Nissan.
The fact that this story forms one of the pillars of my life, perhaps my rabbinate, speaks volumes about the effect we 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 vent. She was covered in torn sweaters and blankets.
Sarah paused for a moment, turned, walked back a few feet, bent down, and gave the woman a ten-pound note, holding her hand for a moment and exchanging a few quiet words with her.
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 told me, and we continued on our way.
At that moment, I remembered Zaidie Nissan, and that drunk man, and that ageless lesson which he taught me.
As Patte and I revel in the growth our fearless eight-month-old granddaughter, preparing to take her first steps, 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, inclines itself towards good.
This week’s Torah portion talks about making choices between blessings and curses. Which are we modelling to those who look up to us?
I have no recollection of the movie that day in 1961, but I remember exactly where I was when my Zaidie gave a two-dollar bill to someone 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 fifty eight years later, I think of him, and all my grandparents.
I remember the scattered bits and pieces of love and wisdom which form the basis of our lives.
And my heart becomes whole again.
Shabbat Shalom, v’kol tuv.
Rabbi Irwin Huberman