One of the factors that attracted me to the Hasidic movement was the feeling that my ideas and thoughts had merit no matter how many books and texts I mastered. The Ba’al Shem Tov, founder of the Hasidic movement, extolled the unadulterated service of the simple ones whose heartfelt pleas reached the loftiest heights. And so I was encouraged by this because while my breadth of knowledge was not like some, at least my contributions would be valued.
But as my time in yeshivah and then Hasidic Crown Heights passed by, I struggled to find my place. These difficulties persisted until I met a beggar outside a pizza restaurant after the fast of the 9th of Av 12 years ago.
Standing on the Outside
I had traveled to the upper west side of Manhattan in search of solace. During my pre-Hasidic years the upper west side was an area that I frequented regularly to watch a movie at the local AMC theaters or partake of a slice at Pizza Cave. But now times were different. I was living in Crown Heights and rarely visited Manhattan anymore.
My first stop that night was the familiar AMC theaters. I tried to convince myself that what I needed was a good movie to wash away the worries. But after perusing title after title, I left.
My next stop was the Barnes & Noble nearby. But after buying a few sci-fi books that I never read and threw out shortly thereafter, I left there as well.
By now the rain was pouring down as I entered my final destination, Pizza Cave, a kosher pizza restaurant that existed at the time. Soaked through-and-through I ordered a slice, ate, and left.
As was leaving, I ran into an elderly beggar. But instead of asking for his needs, likely noticing that I was a Chabad hasid, he began to recount the following…
He said that his tzedakeh collecting days were not always this trying. Over a numbers of years, he would wait outside 770 Eastern Parkway, the headquarters of Chabad, on Sundays to collect tzedakeh. From 1986-1992, thousands of people converged on 770 to receive a dollar and a blessing from the Lubavitcher Rebbe. In turn, as was the custom, these “dollar recipients” would then give another dollar in place of the original to tzedakeh. As the original dollar from the Rebbe was intended for tzedakeh, these “exchange dollars” allowed the recipients to keep the ones that were physically handed to them by the Rebbe. It was in order to collect these “exchanged” dollars that this man stood outside 770 every Sunday.
Feeling deeply at ease from his story, I thanked the man for sharing his experience, handed him a $5 bill, and headed to the subway back home.
I later realized why his story brought me such great relief, and why his story so deeply calmed me. Prior to meeting this man I felt that I was missing something. I felt bereft because I hadn’t met the Rebbe face-to-face, and this troubled me greatly. I began to question my place within Chabad and doubted whether my contributions–creative or otherwise–were really worthwhile.
I don’t know if this man ever waited in line to receive an “original” dollar, or if he even saw the Rebbe (since he was standing outside 770 and the Rebbe was inside), but what I do know is that it provided him food to eat and perhaps even new clothing to wear. So too I began to acknowledge that even though I may be standing on the outside, this does not mean that my contributions are worthless. Indeed, as confirmation to this importance of this night, I later found out that on that very same night, my future wife had been writing a long soul-searching letter listing all the things she was looking for in a match.