The Observant Jew
By Rabbi Jonathan Gewirtz
Spare Some Change
Yesterday at Mincha, (probably well in the past by the time you read this) a fellow asked me if I had change of a $5 bill. I knew it was highly unlikely as I rarely carry cash. Not intentionally, of course, but usually when I get cash, my wife will need me to run and pick up this or that and pay the person cash, or my daughters remember the tzedaka drive at school is collecting today and they need it, or they simply MUST buy something from the vending machine. I guess I should look at it positively that one of the harbingers of Moshiach is “ain pruta b’kis,” there will be no cash in the wallet. I’m not sure about the spiritual symbolism of credit cards though.
Either way, I pulled out my wallet and saw that I only had two single dollar bills on me (though Baruch HaShem I did have larger bills on me this time.) I apologized to him and he asked someone else. That would have been the end of the story if I hadn’t put my hand in my pocket this morning and felt paper money. I pulled it out and sure enough, I had three dollar bills there. That means that when I told him I didn’t have change of a five, I was wrong. I actually DID have change, but I didn’t realize it at the time.
It made me think about how often people ask us for help and we say, “Sorry, I can’t help you.” Is it true?
The story goes that one day many, many, years ago, a wagon got stuck in the mud outside the synagogue where the Baal Shem Tov and his students would learn. The non-Jewish driver came in and asked them to help him free his wagon from the mud.
“We’re sorry,” said the talmidim, “but we’re not strong enough to pull the wagon out.” The frustrated wagon driver said, “You can – you just don’t want to.”
Now, I don’t know if these boys felt they were learning Torah and shouldn’t stop to make the Kiddush HaShem of helping the driver, or if they didn’t want to get dirty, or if they truly felt they would not be physically capable of assisting him. Regardless, they didn’t go out and the driver said that the crux of the issue was not their strength but their lack of desire to help.
The Baal Shem Tov would later use this man’s words as a fundamental lesson. Don’t convince yourself that you aren’t strong enough. HaShem grants the strength to achieve all good things – and if you truly want it, you will succeed. Chazal tell us that nothing stands in the way of desire. If you want it, you can achieve it.
When the fellow asked me for change, I looked in my wallet. It’s the normal place to look because that’s where I put my money. However, if I’d truly had the desire to help him I would not have stopped there. I would have checked my pockets, too, and then I’d have found that I did have the ability to help him.
The deeper lesson here struck me with intensity. Sometimes we’re simply unaware of the strengths we possess. We think we’ve exhausted all our resources but that’s because we’re looking at things in one way. Maybe we’re trying to do something and there’s no reasonable way to achieve our goals. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t an unreasonable or more creative way.
Quite often HaShem sends us the solutions to our problems in a way we would never have expected. Because our minds are conditioned to think in a certain way, we find it difficult to see that there may be another solution.
There’s an interesting study of something called the Ebbinghaus illusion. Essentially, two circles are shown and people are asked to identify which one is larger. When visual context is given, it tends to make them look different. For example, two circles may be the same size but when one is place inside a square which appears to be further away, the brain triggers signals that make it seem larger.
However, this only happens in adults. Children do not seem to get confused by the context. While it’s true that being able to utilize context is an important skill, and that may be why adults develop it, it also shows that as we get older we tend to see things not as they are but as we expect them to be.
What I’m suggesting is that we can all use a little change. We can try to think of different approaches to the challenges of life and recognize that sometimes when we think we can’t, that we don’t have the strength, we actually can, and we’ve really had the power in our pockets all along.
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