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What My Toddler Taught Me When We Met a Homeless Veteran

New York, NY, USA - March 15, 2016: Inside of subway wagon: Colorful seats and inside of empty car: The NYC Subway is one of the oldest and most extensive public transportation systems in the world.

There was a time when I was locked into the concept of systemic change. I believed I could be wiser about my tzedakah and use my energy to work on the roots of global food insecurity or homelessness or violence against women. Of course, I would also donate to my local food pantry.

But on the question of whether or not to give to panhandlers on the subway or on the street, I felt conflicted.  If I gave, was I perpetuating the system—and were my contributions going to help the neediest?  If I didn’t give–well, what was my pocket change to me? Where was my humanity? And what did it mean when I gave to some supplicants and not others?

My ambivalence shifted once my daughter grew old enough to observe this aspect of city life. Part of it was Nava’s natural inclination to interact with everyone on the subway–at six months I handed her off to a stranger, because she wouldn’t stop lunging at him and shrieking. (Please, please, don’t let that damage my credibility!)

But part of it was her rising consciousness of the concept of tzedakah, and the different kinds of need that surrounds us in our city and even more broadly. For instance, she asked me to carry around some money in case we should come across people who need it, and I started to. It became more important to support my daughter in cultivating her sense of obligation to the needy than to make sure I had the biggest impact on the System. After all, educating my child to be a sensitive and ethical person was going to have sustained impact, too.

Sometimes, the encounters we have with people soliciting donations have led to some difficult conversations. Once, we encountered a young, homeless vet. As always, she opened with:

“I hear a voice. It is asking for help.” (I’m serious, this is what my daughter always says.)  As I listened to his speech, which sounded completely genuine, my daughter started to demand a realtime interpretation: “What is he saying?”

I told her that he had been a soldier, and he had wanted to stay a soldier, but he got hurt and had to leave. Since he had no visible disability, I explained that I didn’t know if the injury was to his body or his mind. I then said that he had become homeless, and while he said that the government was soon going to help him with a home, there was a little wait for him to be able to get all the things he needed. She took it all in and handed him her contribution. “Thank you for your service,” I mumbled, the words awkward on my tongue.

“Why did you say that?” Nava asked me. I told her that he had done a really dangerous job, and that was what you say to someone who is or was a soldier.

As we left the subway, she said, “If being a soldier is really dangerous, why do people become soldiers?”

We all have our blind spots. Nava had pinpointed one of mine. I thought about it, and told her that some people feel grateful about living in our country, and this is a way that they show it. That garnered more questions, so I forged ahead. Some people believe that there are good people and bad people; they want to protect the good people from the bad people.

“Why else?” came her inevitable follow up. Some people, I continued, see it as an opportunity. They can see new places. “Why else?” And some people join because they don’t have enough money to go to school, and if they become a soldier, when they come back, they know they will get the money they need to go to college. “Why else?”

I didn’t know.

There are more reasons, I’m sure, but I just don’t know them.

“How was he hurt?” she asked. We were almost home now. I told her that we couldn’t tell from looking at him, but that his body could have been hurt in a way that made him unable to do his job, or that his heart and mind could have been hurt from seeing so many scary things, and again, he wasn’t able to do his job anymore.

When we got home, the things we talked about weighed heavily on me. But I also felt sensitized to this stranger’s plight in a way I wouldn’t have, had my daughter not demanded speculation into his life story. It’s true that I was projecting all sorts of things onto him that may have not been relevant, but I will certainly think more deeply the next time I meet a veteran.

Through encounters like this, daughter has entirely remade my tzedakah practice. Of course, I still give to the causes that are important to me, and even counsel couples getting married in how they think about tzedakah as a household.

But now, when I see people in need in this city and anywhere, I care so much less about being ineffective or even harmful, and care more than ever about seeing the humanity in everyone I cross paths with.

Even when my daughter is not with me, I imagine her saying, “I hear a voice. It is asking for help.”

The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. Comments are moderated, so use your inside voices, keep your hands to yourself, and no, we're not interested in herbal supplements.

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