The generosity of strangers
Jewish tradition talks about two types of generosity, according to Alan Morinis in Everyday Holiness. One is tzedakah, planned and/or obligatory – like contributing to a food bank or giving money to a favorite charity. The second, t’rumah, is more spontaneous; it comes from the open heart. A recent incident made me think about times throughout my life when I have been blessed by the t’rumah of others.
My first recollection of such an act dates back to my early teens. I was sitting in the first row of the auditorium at Meyer Levin Junior High for the honor society installation. The darkened room was filled with fellow students and parents attending the ceremony. Adorned in a sleeveless dress bought especially for the occasion, I had no purse and no pockets. I remember the band playing and when the music stopped, my allergies started. A loud, unfeminine sneeze issued forth, and I needed to wipe my nose! How was I going to march on stage with my nose running? A moment of fear and dread was overcome when suddenly I felt a tap on the shoulder. An observant, anonymous mom from the audience had crawled up behind me, and she handed me a tissue. Though the event happened over 60 years ago, I still remember and thank the kind angel who saved me from a most embarrassing moment.
Then there was the time I rushed out of the restroom on the University of Colorado Denver campus, late for my graduate school class. I had just walked a few feet when I felt yet another tap on the shoulder. “Your dress is tucked into your pantyhose in the back,” a woman whispered. Chagrined but eternally thankful for the rapid warning, I quickly pulled the blue skirt down where it belonged.
“Thank you!” I said.
“Of course,” she answered. “I couldn’t let you keep walking like that.” And she disappeared into the crowded hallway.
Fortunately, not all memories of strangers’ acts of t’rumah involve embarrassing moments.
There was the time we were touring Bora Bora in a rental car and stopped to admire the glorious, bright red hibiscus bush on the side of the road. Suddenly, there was a tall, slim, native teenage girl with glowing long black hair beside us. She plucked two flowers off the tree and placed one in my hair and one in my friend Jan’s. Then she quietly slipped back across the street and into her home. Not a word exchanged.
And the most recent examples of t’rumah served as wonderful models for my grandchildren.
Last winter, Selam, Dian and I were sledding at Meyers Ranch Open Space Park. We were sharing a purple plastic sled, taking turns making runs down the hill. A family with two teenagers and two small kids passed behind us, heading back to their car. Their arms were loaded down with an assortment of tubes and sleds.
‘You only have one sled?” the father asked.
“Here take this tube. We have plenty.”
“Really? Are you sure?” I asked.
He handed the neon green tube to Selam, saying “Have fun.”
“Thank you!” we said in chorus.
“That was so nice,” Selam said with a mixture of awe and gratitude in her voice.
And lastly, the most recent incident, the one that made me reflect on t’rumah. It came in the form of a recorded phone message from a stranger.
“Marilyn, this is Marilyn B__,” she said and went on to explain that she remembered the story in the local newspaper last December about how our family had celebrated Chanukah in the pandemic by making our own candles for the menorah.
“I have lots of candle supplies and wax that I no longer need, and I’d love to give them to you,” the woman said.
I asked the grandkids, and they were excited for future candle making adventures, so I made arrangements to pick the supplies up at the other Marilyn’s home. Four full boxes – enough to create candles for special events and every Chanukah for decades. A gift from the heart of a stranger.
Just a few remembered experiences of t’rumah through a lifetime of gifts from strangers. As I reflect on these events, my gratitude creates a feeling of both open-heartedness and responsibility to pay it forward. I hope these examples can remind me to be the kind of stranger who will share my heart, my kind words and my gifts.
I am honored to announce that my blog won first place in the 2021 National Federation of Press Women’s Communication Contest in the personal blog category.