By Malkie Gordon Hirsch
I had started writing about something completely different earlier today, but when an unexpected visitor came to my door earlier and taught me a valuable life lesson, I decided to shelve that piece for another week. (Worry not; it’s a good one all about manifestation, so stay tuned!)
It was a lazy Sunday afternoon during football season that prevented me from cajoling my sports-obsessed kids away from the game they were watching. Try as I might, they weren’t falling for “Let’s go to the farmers’ market and pick fresh vegetables you’ll never eat!”
As I sat by the kitchen table, formulating the introduction to this week’s article, there was a knock at the door. Though I wasn’t expecting anyone, my boys’ friends and neighbors stop by unannounced, so I didn’t think much of it until my 7-year-old son Gavi ran back in to tell me that someone was here for me.
He then added “A rabbi,” which indicated to me that it must be someone collecting tzedakah.
This was common practice a couple years ago, when Moshe was alive. But like some people (who used to be regular fixtures here) who no longer come around now that he’s gone, the same applies to those who used to occupy our front steps on Sunday. In Pirkei Avos it says: “Let your home be wide open, and let the poor be among the members of your household.” It’s not always as natural these days, but we definitely try.
The visitor looked spent and discouraged and blurted out quickly that he lost his wife three years ago and has eight kids to support. His oldest is 17 and he has 7-year-old twins, and every other month, his family doesn’t have the water on to brush their teeth in their 2-bedroom apartment in Bnei Brak.
He then asked me why I didn’t train my children to tell collectors that their father is busy. He said it in a way that sounded like it was meant to be accusatory, but clearly he didn’t know with whom he was speaking.
I responded, “Because his father died two years ago. He doesn’t have a father.”
His attitude immediately changed and he became softer, and I sensed that he wanted to share his story with someone who might understand where he was coming from.
He asked me how long I had been married and how many kids I have. He spoke wistfully of his late wife and the money he spent that he didn’t have, trying to keep her alive once she got sick.
He told me how his rav instructed him to do whatever it took to try supporting his family and supplementing the income he makes from the two jobs he has, but how demoralizing it is to be walking up and down these blocks in this frum enclave and to knock on doors, sometimes to be ignored even though he sees the parked cars in the driveway.
He’s not sure what feels worse—being ignored or when the kids come to the window and tell him that their father is busy and can’t come to the door.
He told me about the bar mitzvah he’s making in January and I piped up, “I’m making a bar mitzvah, too!”
He smiled and asked for details, and I knew that was where the similarities ended.
There’s a quote, attributed to Gandhi: “I cried because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet.”
It’s excruciatingly difficult to make a bar mitzvah without the other parent there. And it’s that much more difficult to make a bar mitzvah minus a parent and the means to care for the basic needs of the family, on top of the funds needed to actually make the bar mitzvah.
The man then told me that he needed money for tefillin for his son and when he mentioned getting something second-hand, his son asked if it was possible to get him something brand-new for his simcha.
Every time he added another heartbreaking detail about his life, I felt a resolve within me that I needed to help him.
When I asked him where he was staying while in America, he responded “you don’t want to know.”
He then confessed that he was living in the car he was renting for $25/day because he couldn’t afford to waste money he was collecting for his family on room and board for the week. He added that he gets ready in the morning in the mikveh and grabs something to eat. He travels to different neighborhoods but doesn’t make much from his efforts.
At one point, I told him that the reason some might not believe or trust collectors is because of those who aren’t honest and make a living out of only asking for money, instead of working at a job.
He laughed and said that asking others for money and help is the most demeaning thing he has to do, and if not for his children, he’d happily go without material necessities.
To him, it’s not worth the price of asking and the toll it takes on his dignity. But he knows the pain his kids have been through with losing their mother, as well as the financial shortcomings they have to witness month to month. That is why he’s here, along with many others for whom we don’t answer our doors because we’re busy doing way less important things than trying to figure out how not to be kicked out of our home next month.
I asked him if he was thirsty and wanted a drink. He had a twinkle in his eye and became more than just someone asking for help; he became a person who wanted to know if it was too much to make him a coffee.
“Do you have any Israeli coffee, by any chance?”
I tried my hardest to make something resembling the type of coffee he likes, and he walked in to take it. He asked if he could use my restroom and afterward, as he had his coffee, we spoke about where he was from originally (Oceanside) and other details of his life, besides the obvious reason he was standing in my kitchen.
I introduced him to my kids who were watching the game but also had their eye on this stranger chitchatting with their mother.
As we spoke, I saw different parts of him that made up a person I never would have had the opportunity of knowing, if not for the one thing we shared in common—loss.
It made me wonder about how many times I gave up the chance to get to know somebody, to help somebody who needed it—whether it would be through giving money, offering a drink, or being a place they could sit for a bit.
He mentioned that most people don’t understand that the true mitzvah of hachnasat orchim isn’t when we want to crack open our newest cookbooks and impress our friends with fancy foods. It’s when we have people who really need a place, people we might not know, people like him.
We have good intentions, we try living a G-dly life, but sometimes we miss the mark.
After he finished his coffee and we exchanged numbers so that I could see what I could do to help him raise some money on my end, he went on his way. When I walked back into the kitchen, my 14-year-old son asked me how I knew this man. I mentioned that I didn’t, but that he had clearly needed someone to listen.
He needed compassion, and on this day he got it from us.
I’ve made mistakes before. I’ve turned my back on people who asked for help because I was trained to think things about them that possibly weren’t true. And what the experience on Sunday reinforced for me was that when it comes down to it, we’re all equally human.
We might have vastly different paths and mazal; some of us have riches in material items and some have riches in other areas. Some struggle with so much and others seemingly float through life. In bentching, we ask G-d: “Please don’t make us be in need, our G-d, beholden to the gifts of flesh and blood or their loans, but only Your full, outstretched, wide [hands] so that we won’t be embarrassed or humiliated.”
Some have to be the ones asking for help and others are in a position to be supportive.
I’ll try to remind myself to just listen the next time someone rings the bell or knocks on the door and has a story. To give in any way we can, and be thankful that on that day, we don’t have be the one needing.
It’s a blessing to be the one giving, regardless of our circumstances. And that’s a real source of gratitude.
Malkie Gordon Hirsch is a native of the Five Towns community, a mom of 5, a writer, a social media influencer, veteran real estate agent, and runs a patisserie in Woodmere.