Musicians tune their instruments and set buckets at their feet, artists hang their paintings and “cash only” signs on the iron fence surrounding the park and the bells of The Cathedral-Basilica of St. Louis ring the noon hour. Later, I will sit in a quaint cafe on Royal Street—across from antique shops displaying rare books and vintage jewelry—and while I eat an overstuffed sandwich I’ll reflect on my discomfort at the contrast of opulence and poverty in New Orleans. For now, I silence my cell phone and enter the Cathedral’s serene, cool interior.
I walk along the exterior wall—careful not to let my bulky purse and metal water bottle clunk against the pews—and I examine the stained glass windows that depict the life of St. Louis and the sculptures that depict the crucifixion and resurrection. The sculptures appear to be both intricately carved and completely smooth, and I long to reach up to examine them with my fingers.
Arriving at the front of the Cathedral, I encounter a man lighting a candle under a painting of St. Francis of Assisi. I nod and smile, silently slipping between the front pews. I want to exit down the center aisle, because I saw a box labeled St. Anthony’s Bread for the Poor when I entered. I never carry much cash when I travel, especially when I walk around cities, but I’ve set aside a $5 bill with the intention of leaving behind a donation. It’s been tucked in my front pocket all morning, while I’ve evaded the beggars on every corner, denying their requests with my kindest smile and sympathetic blessings.
According to Rav Yitzhak, “One who gives a coin to a poor person is rewarded with six blessings, but one who encourages him with friendly words is rewarded with eleven.”* I adopted his teaching as a coping strategy while living in NYC in the 1980’s. I had to develop a thicker skin—once I realized that I couldn’t possibly give change to everyone who asked—but I remain aware that beneath it is an insufficient layer of protection for a sensitive soul.
I squeeze the folded bill through the slot in the top of the charity box and face the altar one last time before exiting. As I turn to go, a woman stops me. Looking directly into my eyes, she asks, “Could you please help me out so I can get something to eat?”
For the first time all day, I can answer honestly: “I’m so sorry. I have no cash.”
“It’s okay,” she tells me.
As she pivots to leave the Cathedral through the door she just entered, I reach out my hand and touch her shoulder. I lean in close and say, “God bless you.”
To my great relief, she does not look back to see my tears.
* I first learned this teaching, which is recorded in the Talmud (Babva Batra 9a) from Arthur Kurzweil’s “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime; The Treatment of Beggars According to Jewish Tradition: A Case in Point,” in Gym Shoes and Irises, by Danny Siegel.
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