November 10, 2010
It was nearly 5 o’clock when Susan realized she didn’t have the fresh basil and black olives she needed for the chicken dish she was preparing for dinner. Guests were arriving at 7 and she still needed to shower and change. Scribbling the few items down on a scrap of paper, she dashed out of the house — hair a mess, T-shirt stained with olive oil.
She flew from the parking lot into the store and headed straight for the spice aisle.
What was it she needed again?
Shuffling through old receipts and coupons in her purse, it hit her. She threw the list in the trash can outside the store along with a used tissue that was in her pocket.
Back outside, Susan began to rummage through the garbage. At first, she gingerly set aside the greasy bags and magazines stained with food. But it didn’t take long to abandon her squeamishness and pride and engage in a full-out search-and-rescue mission for the list.
Which was right about the time a good-looking, middle-aged man tapped her on the shoulder.
“Excuse me, miss, can I help you?” he asked solicitously.
Susan hoisted herself up, garbage clinging to her sleeve. Before she could answer, he continued.
“I’d like to give you something, to help you out.”
“Oh no, really, I’m fine,” she stammered. “Really, I’m doing great.”
“No, no, I insist. Here, take this,” he said somewhat gallantly and thrust some coins into her hand before walking away.
Susan closed her mouth and opened her palm. In it was 48 cents, mostly dimes and nickels.
Her humiliation turned to shame, but then another feeling swelled inside her.
“Forty-eight cents? That’s the best you could do? You could have at least given me a dollar!” she fumed as she marched back into the store with the list clenched in her other hand.
When Susan told me this story, I laughed at first. But as she went on, I understood the scenario differently.
How we treat a beggar, bag lady or homeless person is an issue that goes to the heart of who we are as human beings. Do we offer a smile, a kind word, some spare change? Do we give her a sandwich or a coupon for McDonalds? Do we dodge the situation altogether by avoiding eye contact or pretending to be talking on our cell phone?
There is a concept in Hebrew expressed by the words b’tzelem Elohim. It means that each of us is created “in the image of God.” What does it mean to be created in God’s image? The rabbis answered that question with words that help us understand the essence of what it means to be human. Simply stated, it is this: that each of us is unique, of infinite value and of equal worth.
These three ideas — that we are all unique, equal and of immeasurable value — can and should influence our actions and relationships. From encountering a bag lady to addressing our children, from dealing with our own prejudices to listening to people we don’t like or agree with — b’tzelem Elohim is meant to keep us on track so that we treat each person with the respect and dignity they deserve as human beings. Judaism teaches that when we honor others in this way, we also honor God.
So what made Susan so upset? The fact that by giving her less than 50 cents, her “benefactor” did something more damaging than helpful: He robbed her of her dignity. That gesture made her feel small and unworthy.
Since the fateful afternoon of the trash can, Susan keeps a roll of dollar bills in her purse. Now she gives — not $1, but $2 — to the woman in front of Walgreens or the newspaper man on the corner. Why?
“Because even though a dollar might be enough to show my respect, I know that two will make them feel much better. And really, it won’t make much of a difference to me in the long run, except in how I feel about myself.”
There are many ways we can respond to others in need. Some would argue that it is best not to give to individuals who ask for help on the street but rather, to give to organizations like the local food banks or homeless shelters that support them. However we choose to give, we should recognize that it is an opportunity to do more than just hand over a few dollars. It is a chance to engage another human being and dignify his or her value and existence.