Elegy for a Character: A Tzedakah Story
Even a poor person – one who is sustained by tzedakah funds – is required to give tzedakah to another person.
Maimonides, Mishneh Torah
Laws of Giving to Poor People 10:5
My friend Renee was a character. She was well known in our town; you couldn’t miss her. Her frizzy salt-and-pepper hair was often bound in a pigtail like a schoolgirl’s. She drove an SUV that was constantly breaking down, packed to the roof with the telltale possessions of an inveterate hoarder. She had weary eyes that conveyed years of adventures.
She lived on the precipice of homelessness. For a while she stayed in emergency shelters – scary places she would recount with stark tales. In recent years, she found more stable housing, cheap rooms to rent in residential homes around Natick. And she knew how to work the system – making her rounds to get the food, gas money, and especially the money for medications she needed.
I suppose that’s where I came in.
She started dropping in on me years ago at the synagogue where I worked. At first, she came for tzedakah money, knowing that people gave me funds to distribute in emergency situations. But she would linger, telling me stories, asking about my family, and, I think, looking for some human contact that can be the harshest thing people who are very poor lack.
Like many such characters, she tested the nerves of those who didn’t “get” her. When she began to show up at the synagogue – ensconced in one of the wealthiest zip codes in America – some people whispered behind her back. Sometimes the b’nai mitzvah families with out-of-town guests would murmur about the woman who looked funny and took too much of the food that was offered before the service began. The staff grumbled when she would sit outside my office, waiting without an appointment to grab a few minutes of my time. Hebrew school parents and kids kept their distance.
Sometimes she exasperated me. I know, of course, about the social service agencies in our area that are there to provide a safety net. I begged her – I insisted – that she connect with them. She would reply that her nonconformist hippie soul wouldn’t be part of their “system.” That made me crazy; I threatened to cut her off if she didn’t take their assistance. But she would inevitably show up with a bill for heart medication, and, of course, I would help cover it.
After a while, the dynamic of our relationship changed. She knew I was going through some rough times personally, so one day she invited me to lunch. I demurred – where in the world would she get the money from? – but she insisted. So, a few days later, she took me out to a local diner. I’m sure we got a few stares. But the gesture meant so much to me: she considered me a friend; she knew I was down, and she treated. She didn’t even let me cover the tip.
Because she was my friend, I knew things about her – her education, her family, her political activism – that others didn’t.
But I’ll share something with you that very few people knew.
One day she handed me a folder. “I know you see a lot of hurting folks throughout the course of the day,” she said. “So, when you feel it’s appropriate, please give people one of these.”
Inside were ten envelopes labeled “For You.” In each one was a handwritten personalized note. Each was a gentle message of compassion and tenderness. For instance:
To remind you
How unique and
—And to wish you
extra energy for the things you’re
Please accept this
as a symbol
comin’ your way—
And enclosed in each card was a $2 bill. (A $2 bill!) The instructions were not to keep this money for yourself, but to take it and use it to brighten someone else’s day.
Look at what an extraordinary mitzvah that is. She did it anonymously; she left it to me to identify the adults, teens, or kids who needed cheering-up. I was not to tell the recipients where it came from; it was just from “a friend, someone who cares.” And the cards were designed to trigger a chain reaction of compassion and human kindness. This is tzedakah (using money to foster world-repair) – tzedakah with the personal touch, rooted in compassion and a desire to make a connection with people who may be desperately lonely.
Renee died last week; her heart finally gave out, surely not helped by the lifestyle she was living. There weren’t obituaries in the paper or online; few people noticed. Many who encountered her over the years may have forgotten her or figured she just skipped town. But she deserves a better memorial.
I know many more juicy stories she shared with me, but I won’t tell them here. May it suffice for us to know that she was a character, and she lived out the Rambam’s (Moses Maimonides; 12th century Sephardic philosopher, Torah scholar, astronomer, and physician) principle, above, that it is everyone’s (everyone’s!) task to bring kindness and caring, not indifference and lies, into the world. Indeed, Renee was my friend, I’ll miss her, and she made a difference.