by Dobra Levitt (Jerusalem, Israel)
Two memories lodged in my past seem to have waited years for my Talmud Torah class to reveal their true value. We have been learning the laws worded as double expressions in the Torah such as: give, you shall give; lend, you shall lend; load up, you shall load up your neighbor’s fallen donkey. The law of restoring a pledge, “restore, you shall restore,” requires a lender to return the garment of a poor person who has given it as security for a loan. Since his garment is most likely the only covering he has, Torah law made it obligatory to return it to him each day before sunset for as long as it’s held as security. The first memory from my working years in Philadelphia brings this law out of the pages of the Gemarah into living reality.
After university and before I found my first teaching position, I worked for a short time at the Department of Public Assistance. My job was to visit people receiving financial assistance, lend a sympathetic ear to their cares and concerns, and send in a standardized form recording my observations. The people I visited were humble folk, grateful to the powers-that-be for the help they got and for the “nice miss” who listened to their troubles.
The job took me into neighborhoods I never knew existed. One place was a single room apartment in a building “somewhere near the railroad tracks.” Its occupant was a small, elderly Afro-American man. By now he’s just a memory of a memory, but for many years he was a living person in my heart. His slight form, his politeness and gentleness were not abstractions describing him but qualities inseparable from what endeared him to me. Except for a plain wood bureau and maybe a few items he kept in a closet, the only things he possessed in this world were literally a table, two chairs, and a cot that served as his bed. Lined up on the bureau top were framed photos of loved ones “from the South.” They were all that really mattered to him. I can’t recall his talking about anything else. I remember standing beside him as he showed me each one, telling me who they were and how they were related to him.
At the bottom of his bed, folded up very neatly, was a khaki overcoat he may have bought at one time from an army and navy store. As sure as I stood there, I knew that coat was what he used to cover himself at night. I may have asked him or found out from my supervisor that a blanket had been ordered for him—it troubled me so that he still had not received it. I must have sent in the visiting form with an urgent request for its immediate delivery, but I was scheduled to leave the Department shortly after my visit, so I never knew the outcome of my gentleman’s story. I always hoped that someone broke through the bureaucratic red tape and got his blanket to him without a minute’s further delay.
Talmudic scenarios, at least literally, are not common anymore. It’s unlikely that when we step out the door we’ll encounter a lost sheep we should exert ourselves to return to its owner or help a neighbor unload his fallen donkey, but there are rare exceptions. With my own eyes I saw how a frail mortal could have nothing to his name in this world but one garment to cover himself at night—and if he had to give it as security, his very life could be endangered if it wasn’t returned on time. “If you take thy neighbor’s garment to pledge, you shall restore it to him before the sun goes down; it is his only garment, his covering for his skin; wherein shall he sleep?”
Reading this passage from the Torah, I felt the incredible closeness and immediacy of Hashem in every situation and far more deeply felt the line from tehillim that came to me: “The Lord is good to all, and His mercies extend to all His works.
Years later, and on a lighter note, the second memory is a perfect embodiment of the doubled expression, “give, you shall give.” One of the meanings the sages derived from the repetition was that it was better to give multiple times – giving smaller sums to several charities rather than a lump sum to only one or giving to three poor people five shekels each for a coffee rather than fifteen to one person. Little did I know at the time that I was fulfilling a law of the Torah in this ideal way.
I was at the time learning in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, occasionally making forays into Boro Park for shopping or meeting friends. Leaving Boro Park one early afternoon to catch my bus, I was accosted (if I can use that word for such a diminutive crowd) by a class of very young yeshivah boys in the fourth or fifth grade asking for a donation. It seems they were collecting for some charitable cause that their school turned into a class competition. There may even have been a run-off among individual boys to decide the Supreme Collector of the whole yeshivah.
Good fortune went round that day. For some reason I had a lot of small change in my bag and on the spot became a dispenser of charity coins to maybe twelve very happy boys. You would think a windfall of immense worth fell into their hands as each one walked away, shouting and jubilant, with his nickel or dime. When just two or three boys were left and I had come almost to the end of my change, I began thinking I should hold on to what was left for the bus fare or something else I might need. Walking towards my bus stop, I explained to the boys why I was “closing up shop.” Having done so well as a group, they accepted the decision with a good grace and went their boyish way – except for one unappeased boy. I can almost see him as he stood his ground. He was smaller than the rest and just as it was undeniable that he wore glasses, so was it absolutely clear he wore intelligence. It was written, as they say, all over him. He persisted at my side, backing away with me as I walked. “But I gave to the whole class,” I told him. “Yes, but I’m a different person,” he answered. And to whatever I said that I thought bolstered my argument, he answered in his childish voice, never changing his tone or showing the least irresolution: “Yes, but I’m a different person.”
Of course I gave him. How could I not! He was so preciously unique and his ingenuous logic was unassailable. It was my logic that was below the mark. Surely I must have had a few bills in my purse so I could have gotten change for the bus, and what could I possibly have suddenly needed in the minutes it took to walk to the station that twenty-five cents would help pay for? When I look back, I think I was acting on the not uncommon instinct to preserve my money lest – who knows? – I might go penniless!
I treasure the memory of my little yeshivah boy. I can’t begin to count how many times his innocent “Yes, but I’m a different person” has sounded in my heart, making me smile and, on occasion, even admonishing me. Sometimes I am unexpectedly approached by a group of needy people here in Jerusalem where, unfortunately, the poor abound. This often happens before the festivals when poor men and women with needy families ask for help. I have to remind myself: true, nowhere does halacha require me to give away all my money, but I won’t fall below the poverty line if I give more than I regularly give to people who are asking. Each one has a just claim; each one is a different person.
Dobra Levitt lives in Jerusalem where she writes and teaches creative writing. She published a memoir called The Fish in the Yellow Paper, a collection of essays describing her childhood and high school teaching years in Philadelphia. Here’s a link to her book if you’d like to take a look: https://amzn.to/2ukRsMG