When a Mitzvah Isn’t
OpinionChana's Corner

When a Mitzvah Isn’t

Trying to do good for someone isn't always enough.

Chana Shapiro

Chana Shapiro is an educator, writer, editor and illustrator whose work has appeared in journals, newspapers and magazines. She is a regular contributor to the AJT.

Deep insights come from an afternoon at the grocery store.
Deep insights come from an afternoon at the grocery store.

It was Wednesday at the kosher deli of a local supermarket. I was there to order a sandwich, and even though there were several people ahead of me, I decided to wait.

A harried man whom I’ve met a couple of times came up, surveyed the situation and addressed me: “I’m starving, but the line’s too long. I’ll shop and come back later. What are you getting?”

I understood his hint and offered to place his order when it was my turn. “I’m getting a turkey combo,” I told him. “What do you want?”

“Sounds good. Will you order the same for me?” And he rushed away.

Ten minutes later, I ordered both sandwiches, received and paid for mine, and informed the counterman that someone else would pick up and pay for the other one. I then joined my friend Essie at a table.

After a leisurely lunch, we headed out. I ran into the man for whom I ordered the sandwich and asked if he enjoyed it.

“Oh, I changed my mind,” he said. “I had so much to do all over the shopping center. No time to eat! Gotta run!” And off he went.

I found the store manager and explained what had happened. “Don’t worry about it,” he said when I offered to pay for the unclaimed sandwich. I felt bad, and Essie had some advice for me, “That’s what you get for trying to do a favor for somebody who doesn’t need it.”

I was thinking about unrequited acts of kindness when groups of men and women from residential facilities in the area entered the supermarket. They were eager to take advantage of the Wednesday senior discounts.

It was such a nice day that Essie and I decided to purchase drinks and linger outside, where a number of tables and benches are located. As we sat down, we noticed a solitary, rather frail-looking woman from one of the residences slowly maneuvering her shopping cart toward the outdoor table next to ours. She looked tired; having finished shopping, she selected a seat closest to the van pickup spot.

From our table, Essie faced this woman and noticed that she was perspiring and squinting and had one of her arms raised to shield her eyes from the sun. She was sitting in the hottest, most blinding spot.

Essie pointed to the table and benches on the other side of ours, which were completely in the shade, but the woman didn’t respond. Concerned, I approached the woman and offered to help her change tables. She nodded, straightened her clothes and reached for her purse.

While she was still sitting, I decided to relieve her of dealing with her loaded shopping cart. I pushed it to the shaded table and used a few tissues to wipe it clean. Then, satisfied that I had set the stage for the woman’s move, I returned to sit with Essie.

But the woman remained seated in the sun, apparently flustered. Once again, Essie expressed the obvious: “She can’t get to the other table without her cart. Didn’t you realize that she can’t walk without leaning on it?”

I got up again, apologized to the woman for removing her support, gingerly linked one of her arms through mine, made sure she had her purse and helped her walk to the shaded table. I apologized a few more times; she blinked and sat.

Essie rewarded me with a look that said, “If you’d have done it right at first, you wouldn’t be apologizing now!”

Soon, the woman’s van pulled up. I prudently waited for instructions from Essie, who didn’t need to direct me this time. The driver went to help the woman, who had started pushing her shopping cart toward him.

“Why were you sitting so far away?” the driver asked.

Pointing to me, she answered, “She moved me!”

“It was shadier there!” I blurted in self-defense.

Twice in a single day I had failed to successfully perform a mitzvah. Now I got it. There are two components: an eager deliverer and an appropriate recipient. There’s nothing to do but keep trying.

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