The following story took place decades ago on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. It was a few days before Pesach, when people were busy with their holiday preparations.
I went to the butcher to pick up my order. There was one person ahead of me, a gentleman who owned a local Jewish bookstore. Besides books, his store boasted beautiful Judaica; it was popular among the locals and tourists.
Back in the 1970s, the Lower East Side had top-notch delis, restaurants, pizza stores, Judaica stores, clothing stores, home-decorating businesses, etc. There was a live chicken market under the Williamsburg Bridge. People went there before Pesach to get a white feather for the search for pieces of chametz the night before the holiday. The owner himself handed out the feathers to customers and non-customers alike, and always graciously. The neighborhood was a great place to live.
So I was waiting at the butcher shop when the door opened and an elderly lady entered with her shopping cart. Her face and hands were muddy and covered with blood. Our eyes were fixed on her as she told us that she had just been thrown into the gutter by a man who grabbed her pocketbook and ran off with it. She was the picture of a broken woman; despair emanated from her bent body. I wondered how vicious and yet cowardly the robber must have been to do what he did to this sweet, fragile human being. I guess the thief did it because she looked so fragile.
She continued, saying that she had come to pick up her Pesach order, but now that her money was gone she couldn’t.
The butcher’s wife, Mrs. H., was behind the counter. She called the woman over and asked her to wait. Mrs. H. went into a room and returned with a large bag, which she handed to the customer, telling her that she had already paid for it. The customer replied that she did not. Mrs. H. said that she must have forgotten that she paid. There was a back-and-forth until the customer deferred. She put the package in her cart, thanked Mrs. H. and left. Then the bookseller paid for his purchase and was gone as well.
I was alone with Mrs. H. expecting to get my order, pay for it and leave. Before that, Mrs. H. said that she was going to tell me what had just transpired. While listening to the poor woman’s story, the bookseller silently handed cash to Mrs. H. to cover the woman’s order. The customer did not notice, just as I had not. Her dignity remained intact in that respect.
I was humbled by what Mrs. H. told me. The gentleman showed respect and compassion to his fellow Jew without drawing attention to himself. I know this is what Hashem expects from all of us. That lesson has stayed with me to this very day.