“The whipped cream will be a few minutes. Is that okay?”
“Sure,” I smiled. Being patient can be challenging for me, but I didn’t mind this time — because I was getting the hot chocolate for the woman sitting outside the restaurant in Crown Heights. She’s known as the “Dreidel Lady,” because she asks for tzedakah while standing next to a large dreidel outside the Jewish Children’s Museum.
She’s a force to be reckoned with; for one thing, she calls out, “I’m not invisible!” to people who try to walk by her. If she doesn’t like the amount she gets, she lets people know in no uncertain terms. I once watched a man give her two quarters, which she immediately threw back at him.
I learned a few years ago that when I give this woman a dollar, she gives me a very pleasant “thank you,” and usually a compliment about my kindness, or a blessing for my health. That’s a lot better than a scolding. It also shows God that I’m well aware that the Dreidel Lady and I are united at our spiritual core, which is also united with every other Jew, and with God Himself.
And because this is Elul, the month for getting my spiritual act together before Tishrei’s High Holidays, it’s a good time to affirm my commitment to this truth — this Oneness — even if my behavior doesn’t always reflect it. I hope to give tzedakah in the coming year out of complete humility — for the sole purpose of doing what God wants, just because it reveals my inner Oneness and makes the world a more Godly place. But I must admit that I am also enticed by hopes that my tzedakah will physically protect me and my family. And I figure it can’t hurt for the Dreidel Lady to get some extra money and a hot chocolate for the New Year.
If you’re looking for “one stop shopping” in the mitzvah department, giving tzedakah is said to be the best way to guarantee that God will bestow life’s blessings on you, especially the blessing of wealth. How this makes sense, I don’t know. It’s just one of God’s many mysteries regarding the Jewish people, but it’s in our law, it’s in our tradition; it’s in our DNA to give to others. (If you don’t believe me, drive by a hospital and look at the names. You would think that Jews are the only people who get sick.)
But tzedakah is more than a Jewish ethical obligation. It also has a spiritual component; I’m supposed to feel the pain of a less fortunate Jew. It does hurt my heart that the Dreidel Lady’s life has put her in this unfortunate position, but I also know what I’m supposed to do with this pain. Like all pain, it’s meant to signal that something is wrong in the world, and I’m seeing it and feeling it because I can fix it, even in a small way. And I know that God wants me to be thankful to her, and to every person I help, for giving me the opportunity to do a mitzvah — because that’s the inner truth of these encounters.
God wants each of us, in our own way, and in our own time, to be both a giver and a receiver. And He wants us to understand that the world isn’t right until everyone’s needs are met.
Can humanity achieve this state of perfection?
I’m banking on it. Because God has assured us that He will repay everyone with a world of revealed good in the Messianic era. But my actions need to reflect my sincere desire for this era. By doing mitzvos like giving tzedakah, I’m putting my money where my mouth is — making the Messiah my personal reality, which helps to make it the world’s reality.