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On the New York City Subway

June 30, 2015

By Aryeh Ben David

(Article reprinted on Times of Israel,, JFS Seattle, eJewish Philanthropy, and

I am taking the Broadway #1 train from Penn Station to Van Cortlandt Park in the late afternoon. Van Cortlandt Park is the last stop on the line.

About three stops from the end, everyone in my car exits. I’m left alone.

The door opens from another car. Enters a 30-something year old guy, big, and obviously drunk. I’m at the other end of the car.

He calls out, “Hey, you got a match?”

I answer, “I don’t smoke.”

He says, “I guess then you wouldn’t have any matches.”

He stumbles over to me. I’m getting a bit nervous. He’s bigger than me, and I’m a worrying kind of guy.

He leans over close to me, about 5 inches from my ear, and whispers: “Tzedaka. You know what tzedaka is?”

Surprised and amused, I answer “yes.”

He waits. I pause. Then I take a dollar out of my pocket and give it to him.

He begins to stumble away.

I don’t know what happened to me, but I call after him, “Hey. I gave you something. Now you give me something.”

He looks back at me, not understanding. I say it again, “Give me something.”

I call out, “I gave you tzedaka. You give me a blessing.”

He looks puzzled.

I say, “I have a kid who just had 2 knee operations. Do you have a blessing?”

He stops. Looks straight at me, thinking what to say. “I guess you don’t believe in Jesus, huh?”

I shake my head.

He says, “I bless you that your kid will be healthy.”

Then he takes a step to walk away and stops. Puts his hand on the subway pole, turns back to me and says, “And I give you a blessing, that whatever happens to your kid, God will give you the strength to handle whatever it is.”

Wow. I was overcome with emotion.

I had given him a dollar from my pocket.

He gave me a blessing from his heart.

The train stopped. We said goodbye to each other. “Goodbye friend, thank you.” “Goodbye friend, have a good day.”

At the moment, I didn’t know what propelled me to ask him for a blessing.

Looking back, I understand it like this:

Asking for something – a cigarette or money – can be a very degrading and humiliating experience.

He had given me the chance to be a giving person – to give to him. Though I hesitated and didn’t give with a full, open heart or smile, after giving something to him – I actually felt good about myself.

I wanted to offer him, too, the chance to give something and feel good about himself.

In the end, he gave me so much – a moment of netzach, of eternity – a moment that I will never forget.

Our souls are wired to give. That’s how the Creator created us. Sometimes the kindest act we can do is to receive – to allow someone else to give to us.