Being a shliach means living my life without the knowledge of how my day will turn out. Sure, I will have my one-on-one shiurim, visit those who need a new mezuzah, wrap the tefillin customers, encourage someone who is depressed over the phone, arrange for a kosher meat order to be trucked in, but however I planned my day the night before, I am sure something will happen that I didn’t expect or plan for. It brings some level of excitement to the job, as we are often pleasantly surprised.
On Friday, February 5, Mark, a Jew from Helena, called me about two hours before licht bentchen, before we ushered in Shabbos. In a voice that sounded sorrowful, he said that his dad, living in Florida, was diagnosed with COVID and was on his deathbed. The doctors told him that his dad didn’t have very long to live. I had helped Mark a few years ago, so I knew that he and his wife were living paycheck to paycheck and that buying a ticket to get to Florida for the eventual funeral was out of their financial reach. To make it more interesting, Mark hadn’t been on a plane in 40 years; due to his economic challenges he always traveled by Greyhound bus. He didn’t know what “documents” he needed in order to fly or how to book a flight; he mamash had no clue.
I told him that I was ready to help, but that we needed to get it done in the next two hours as I would be off the grid as soon as the sun set. From my car, on my phone, outside Bozeman Montessori, I booked him a United flight for Sunday morning to West Palm Beach and a Delta flight to take him back home on Tuesday. His father did pass early Sunday morning, and he merited to attend his father’s funeral.
Chabad didn’t only pay for his roundtrip ticket; we actually booked the trip for him. When I shared this with our local supporters, they were ecstatic. They love hearing how their support for Chabad allows us to step up for those in our community who have nowhere else to turn. To us it was a no-brainer—a Jew needed closure, needed the solace of being at his father’s levayah, so we should help him be there.
In this week’s parashah, Terumah, we read about the gifts donated to the Mishkan, to the building of the Tabernacle. The wording at the beginning reads: “Speak to the children of Israel and have them dedicate to Me a contribution.” The Hebrew wording “V’yikchu Li terumah,” which literally means “Take for Me a contribution” seems odd. Shouldn’t it have said the more common term “V’yitnu Li terumah,” they must give? There are many explanations for the grammatical anomaly, but the most basic of them all is that when we give, when we help build a tabernacle—whether a communal one or the personal tabernacle of an individual in need—we are getting more than we are giving.
When we are in a position to be there for another, to support someone financially, emotionally, mentally, spiritually, physically, or in any other way, we have to thank Hashem for allowing us to help and never look down on those we are helping. At times, we feel like we want to judge, we have questions about their situation and how they got there, but it’s not our role to be the judge, just to be the benefactor.
Last week, I received an e-mail from a non-Jewish woman, Anne, who works downtown and had interacted with a homeless woman in her late sixties who claimed to be Jewish. As we experienced a full week of below-zero temperatures and that evening it was going to drop to -22 (Fahrenheit) she was concerned about this woman sleeping outdoors and the potential death sentence that it could bring. I spent an hour that afternoon traversing the alleyways of Bozeman looking for a woman who matched her description but had no luck. Later in the evening, Anne called me to let me know she tracked her down and that she was at a local laundromat, sitting in a corner, keeping warm. So at 7:30 p.m. that evening, I took my daughter Chaya with me and picked up this woman to take her to the homeless warming shelter so she wouldn’t remain outside during the freezing night.
It turns out that the woman isn’t Jewish; she claims she’s marrying the Christian savior. Sadly, she smelled really bad, but her personality was pleasant, she had a good sense of humor, and she was extremely grateful for the ride over. I wanted Chaya there with me for halachic reasons, but also so that she can see the humanity of someone like “Sister B,” as this woman calls herself, and that they aren’t just “schleppers” to be ignored or mistreated, but people with stories and dreams like all of us.
As we pulled up to the shelter, there were over eighty men and women spending the night there due to the weather. It was important for Chaya and me to see what that world looks like. So often when we have the z’chus, the incredible merit, to be “givers,” we don’t step into the shoes of the recipients. It was good for me to have that smell in my car, to remember how grateful I should be for my shower at home, even if the pressure doesn’t always meet my standards; how amazing it is that we have a washer and dryer, even if they malfunction and need repair once in a while; and instead of complaining about the temperatures that competed with the North Pole’s last week, appreciating my car that has heated seats and my home that has heat to keep us warm.
Being in the giving mode is beneficial in so many ways. A study by Rachel Piferi of Johns Hopkins University and Kathleen Lawler of University of Tennessee reports that people who provided social support to others had lower blood pressures as compared to participants who did not, attesting to the fact that “giving” has a direct relationship to physiological benefits. Moreover, Stephen Post, who is a professor of preventive medicine at Stony Brook University, writes that “giving to others” has been shown to increase health benefits in people with chronic illness, including multiple sclerosis.
In the beautiful biblical story of Ruth and Boaz, after Ruth spends the day with Boaz in the field, she returns home to her mother-in-law, Naomi. The verse says, “And her mother-in-law said to her, ‘Where have you gleaned today and where have you worked? May he who took heed of you be blessed.’”
Ruth tells her mother-in-law, “The name of the man with whom I worked today is Boaz.”
The Midrash says on this pasuk, “More than the benefactor does for the poor person does the poor person do for the benefactor, for Ruth said to Naomi: ‘The man’s name with whom I worked today.’ She did not say, ‘Who worked for me,’ but ‘with whom I worked.’ I brought him many benefits in return for the one morsel of food which he gave me.”
She wasn’t being ungrateful to Boaz and his men; she was simply recognizing the truth that she, the recipient of his kindness, gifted him with the greatest gift of all, the opportunity to be a giver. Like I once read, “As we work to create light for others, we naturally light our own way.”
Rabbi Chaim Bruk is co-CEO of Chabad Lubavitch of Montana and spiritual leader of The Shul of Bozeman. For comments or to partner in our holy work, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit JewishMontana.com/Donate.