Responsibility -- A True Story

All Jews are Responsible For One Another” (Talmud, Shevuot 39a) 

Adoni, atah yachol l’azor li?”  (Sir, can you help me?”)

There was no one else around, so he must be talking to me.  

I turned around to a rail-thin, toothless man, who looked to be in his eighties, sitting on a Jerusalem bench.  

“I need ten shekels.”   

Bishvil mah?”  “For what do you need ten shekels?” 

“To buy food.”  He gestured across the street to a small market.  

I was on my way back from morning minyan (prayers), and in any case, refusing to aid someone asking for food would be unconscionable. Still, is that really how he intended to use the money?  

“I’ll take you to the store and buy you something to eat.”  

Gratified, he led me to the door, entered, and made a beeline for a shelf in the back, while I remained at the cashier.  He returned with one small plastic container, like the sealed cups of water served with airplane meals.  

Gesturing to me, he said to the cashier, “He’ll pay.”

Surprised, I asked him, “Is that all?  What is that?”  

“Juice.”

“Don’t you want anything to eat?”  

“I only want this to drink.”  

Slow on the uptake, I didn’t immediately understand why this hungry man only wanted a small container of juice when I, open wallet in hand, was ready to buy him food.  

The cashier just said, “18 shekels.”   

18 shekels? (about $5.00) -- for a little plastic container of juice?  Jerusalem food prices are high, especially in small markets, but this seemed impossible. And anyway, he had only asked me for ten shekels (although I was willing to pay more, for at least one good meal).  

The man said nothing.  

I looked at the foil cover on the container.  

“Vodka.”  

“That’s not juice!” I said, indignantly.  “I’m not buying … (unable to instantly recall the word for “alcohol” in Hebrew – it’s “alcohol”) … that for you!”  

I reached to pull it away, but his grip tightened as if it were the only available water in the desert.  We both pulled at the thin plastic, and I could feel that it was about to burst.  But I was determined to take it from him, even if I had to pay $5.00 for a spilled puddle on the floor.  

Like the mother who gave up her baby in the story of Solomon rather than see it split in half, the man ruefully let the cup go.  

I again asked, “Do you want something to eat?”  

He eyed the snack sausages in a warming container on the counter and asked for one of them.  

“Seven shekels” said the cashier.  

I paid, wished the man "Yom tov," and walked out.  

Behind me, I could hear the cashier berating him.  

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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb