A few years ago, something a rabbi said changed my life.
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I was sitting at Ramath Orah, on Broadway and 110th Street, when the shul’s young rabbi, Moshe Gruscott, told the story of an academic experiment. In the experiment, researchers told a group of Christian seminary students to walk to another building. They told some of the students that they were already late in getting there. They told others that they had plenty of time. They told some of the students that, once they reached their destination, they would give a talk about the job market for seminarians. They told others that they would give a talk about the Good Samaritan, the famous story in the Gospel of Luke in which a Samaritan helps an injured man on the site of the road after a Cohen and a Levi pass him by.
Along the students’ path to the other building, the researchers placed a man “slumped in doorway, who moaned and coughed twice as they walked by.” (I’m quoting from a description of the study I found subsequently). The results: Telling the students they were late made a big difference. The students who were in a hurry passed by the injured man at a higher rate. Telling the students that they would be sermonizing about the Good Samaritan — about the importance of not ignoring those in need — made no difference at all.
When Rabbi Gruscott finished the story, I felt a twinge of recognition: That was me. Since college, if not earlier, I’ve been a fast walker. I tend to leave myself barely enough time to get from place to place, which leaves me in a perpetual rush. And since college, if not earlier, I’ve been delivering my own version of the Good Samaritan sermon: writing columns that scold politicians for not doing more to fight poverty and injustice. I’d been carrying out the academics’ experiment my entire adult life, with the same result: I rarely helped the needy people I encountered on my way to write articles about the importance of helping the needy.
The story rattled around in my brain for weeks, and at some point, I decided to change my behavior. Now, when people ask for money, I give: A couple of quarters if I have them, a dollar if I don’t. I don’t want to self-aggrandize. I only stop when someone asks for money. I don’t go over to the many homeless people I encounter who are simply sitting or lying on the ground, even if they appear to be in distress. And the amount of money I give away is trivial, maybe a couple of hundred bucks a year. I’m not even entirely confident that giving away money to the homeless improves their lives. In some cases, I’m probably fueling an addiction. I’m sure some people have well-thought-out rationales for not giving to panhandlers. Given my political orientation, however, I’d be a hypocrite for adopting those rationales myself.
But while I don’t know if I’ve changed the lives of the people to whom I give, I know that doing so has changed me. First, it helps me experience gratitude. When I take the time to interact with someone sitting on the pavement, I feel grateful that I have a place to live. When I give away a little money, I’m reminded that I have money to give. When I talk to people with bigger problems than my own, if only for a moment, my narcissism ebbs. None of this is surprising. For millennia, philosophers have noted that we grow more content when we stop obsessing about ourselves. But it took giving money to the homeless for me to experience that truth for myself.
Second, giving away money has helped me better experience God. I can’t exactly explain what means; it’s just a feeling. When I give someone money, the most common response I get is “God bless you.” It doesn’t feel like a throwaway line. It’s often the most genuine, intense thing anyone says to me all day. The people to whom I give aren’t just thanking me for the money. They’re responding to the fact I’ve taken the time to see them when most people rush by. The weird thing is that I often come away feeling seen myself, and reminded how often people rush by me.
When I walk away, the feeling of having been blessed lingers. I don’t think about God much in shul. But in those moments, I do. I feel like the homeless person I just met was a messenger, sent by God, to help me become the person I need to be.