This is not a dvar Torah. This is just a true story that actually happened. A story that happened to me earlier this week and it might just change the way you think of davening and Tzedakah. It has had a profound impact on me.
This week we were blessed to send my son off to a year of learning in Israel. The day he left was a day of high anxiety and worry. It was the normal worry of parents seeing kids off and it had a special layer of worry. This amazing son of mine has been unique among my children from very early on and as he finds his own path in yahadus and Torah, we pray that he finds great friends and rebbeim that will help him. (You can see more about that here.) So my davening that morning was particularly focused on my son and his trip, and his year, and just the whole of everything involved.
After Shacharis we packed the van and, in preparation of our drive from Baltimore to JFK, I went to fill the van up with gas. And then I had one of the most important experiences of my religious life.
I’ll interrupt this story to say that this incident would not have happened this way without a colleague of mine, who shared a story she had last spring. I think her story had been rolling around in my head and waiting for its moment. Back to the gas station.
Filling the van. A gentleman, African America, maybe mid 40’s, comes up and asks me, “Hey man, can you help me out? I need some gas. I don’t want money, I just need help with some gas so I can get to a job.” Now, I’m not a rich man. I don’t look rich and there is nothing about my Honda Odyssey with the scratched paint and the trim coming off and the dent in the trunk that would make anyone think – that’s a man of means. I was just a guy pumping gas. And he was just a guy in a desperate situation. He needed help. So I told him – ok. I can help him out with some gas.
I walked over to the pump, ran my card, and started to pump the gas for him. And then I turned to him and said, “Now I need something from you.” He stared, a bit shocked, a bit apprehensive. I continued, “I have a son. In a bit of a situation and we’re really worried about him. He needs to make good friends. Can you say a prayer for my son? “
And then there was a quiet moment. Followed by a stream of declarations. He is a praying man. He gave me his business card. He feels like he can really be a help to my son. He wants to help. This was a divinely inspired meeting. And then he put his hand on my shoulder and we bowed our heads and we prayed. He used words that are wonderful and important, but just not part of our tradition. It included phrases like, “bring him all the way to victory in Your Grace.” I liked that.
I walked away from that encounter feeling as though I had had a powerful experience of shared humanity. In that moment we shared a brotherhood. It wasn’t the relationship of a man who had credit and a man who needed gas. We became something else in that moment. We needed each other. And after the exchange I know we both walked away differently.
I think about this in the context of Tefillah and Tzedaka. I think that if I had not heard my colleague’s very similar story I would have helped this man out with some gas. But I think I would have done it as a talisman of sorts, a good luck charm. I needed help from Hashem, I would show compassion in this moment. It would have been a very selfish act of tzedaka where I was a giver and he was a receiver. But even if it started that way, it became something else. I was vulnerable enough to become a receiver and we both walked away uplifted.
And now there is one more soul thinking about my son, and that can’t hurt.