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The Bottomless Cup

The Bottomless Cup

A Purim Lesson

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Yesterday morning there was a knock at my door at 7:30 AM. It was a woman I have seen for years walking around the neighborhood, her lipsticked face clenched up and distorted underneath her crooked headcovering, her fists balled and swinging as she walks around like a drunken soldier. I don’t know her name, and I don’t know the name of her neurological condition, but for many years I have been greeting her on the street with a smile and a hello.

Last week, for the first time, she approached me on the street and asked if I could give her five dollars to buy medicine. I did not have any money with me, so I apologized and told her so.

Yesterday morning she was at my door . . . again

Two days later she appeared at my front door and asked again for five dollars for medicine. I found three dollars and gave them to her. And then, yesterday morning she was at my door again. Asking for five dollars for medicine.

At that point, I began to get nervous. Would this woman appear at my door every morning at 7:30 AM and ask for five dollars for medicine? I told her “No,” a bit too sharply, and closed my front door, a bit too loudly.

And for the rest of the morning, I was tearing myself up about whether I had done the right thing. This is a woman who is clearly in genuine need of medication, and I did have five dollars in my wallet. I could easily have given it to her.

The problem, I reasoned, is that this woman is like a bottomless cup of coffee. I give, and she wants more, and I give more, and she’ll want even more. I sincerely do feel badly for her. But I am equally scared to let a person who is in chronic, desperate need become dependent on me.

I know a bunch of people who are bottomless cups. The elderly man whom we frequently invite for Friday night dinner who once showed up in his Shabbat best on Thursday night. A depressed single woman in her fifties who often responds to our efforts at kindness by irrationally lashing out in anger against me and my husband. A single in his forties whose ongoing struggles with mental illness and dyslexia prevent him from getting a job and getting out of debt, despite several hard-won advanced degrees.

Along the continuum between selflessness and selfishness, it is hard to find a balance with these people. They need and need and need, and how much can I give? I invite them for Shabbat, but they say something rude to another guest. I give them money, but my resources are limited. I try to be friendly when I see them on the street, but I have a bored child tugging at my skirt who also needs my attention.

I already have enough bottomless cups in my life, I reason, that need constant refilling. My beloved children are bottomless cups, always needing more tuna sandwiches, more help with an art project, more sympathy after a tough day in math class. My home is a bottomless cup, always needing more cleaning, more repairs, more picking up sweaters and boots and lonely gloves strewn across my living-room floor. The demands upon me are a bottomless cup: there is always another article to complete in time for my deadline, another bill to pay, another doctor/dentist appointment to schedule.

That is the point at which you pull up your drawbridge

And Judaism, I reason as well, respects having boundaries. Jewish law requires me to give 10% of my income to charity, not more. Every teacher instructs mothers to do good deeds outside of the home, until the moment when the atmosphere in her home becomes tense and her family members start paying the price for her kindness. That is the point at which you pull up your drawbridge and turn down a request to join your synagogue’s Children’s Library Committee.

But, if I am being totally honest, and put aside all of my many justifications, the truth is that my gut instinct is to flee from the bottomless cups in my life. To double-lock my front door, and let the machine pick up when the caller ID tells me that they are the ones on the line. Simply stated, there is something about bottomless cups that make me, and most people, very uncomfortable.

I have been thinking, though, about the lesson we learn from the holiday of Purim. The rest of the year, in accordance with Jewish law, I am entitled to check out the worthiness of the people to whom I give charity. On Purim, however, I am supposed to open my wallet and give generously without thinking, without judging. One of the four mitzvot of the Purim holiday is matanot la’evyonim, in which we are required to give charity to at least two people in need. The custom, however, is to give to anyone who asks, and furthermore, to seek out people who need help.

Maybe this is an annual reminder for those of us who find ourselves hanging out closer to selfishness than selflessness on that continuum I mentioned earlier. Maybe Purim comes to remind us the whole year that we are supposed to be doing a little less judging and a little more caring.

Because from G‑d’s point of view, we are all bottomless cups. G‑d provides us with the air we breathe, the food we eat, the bodies that function and carry us around our lives. From that point of view, there is nothing we can do that makes us more like G‑d than opening our lives a bit more to those around us. Then giving a bit more, from one bottomless cup to another.

Chana (Jenny) Weisberg is the author of the new book One Baby Step at a Time: Seven Secrets of Jewish Motherhood (Urim), and Expecting Miracles: Finding Meaning and Spirituality in Pregnancy through Judaism (Urim). She is the creator of the popular website www.JewishMom.org, and lives with her husband and children in Jerusalem.
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mom of special needs child Philadelphia, PA March 11, 2009

Good perspective Thank you - I have to agree. I never looked at it this way before. Like the others, I have a few 'bottomless cups' in my life - careful with the caller id and the answering machine and wondering how to respond, as when they contact me, it's always with a need, ask an inch, take a mile. But sometimes people have nowhere else to turn, & maybe Hashem puts them in my life for that reason. Who am I to say no to those in need? I also have a special needs child, & I have my own times of 'falling apart' & "I want, I need'. The scales eventually balance out. Hashem is abundant for all, even if we feel we are not. Reply

wendy CHICO , USA March 11, 2009

thank you YES !!!
i to am a bottomless cup !!! thank you G*D that i can be refilled and overflowing everyday by G*D . what a Blessing your words have been to me . May G*D Bless you :) Reply

Dena Modiin Ilit, Israel March 9, 2009

Very insightful I found this to be a very insightful article. I could definitely relate. Thanks for reminding me that I too am a bottomless cup! Reply

Rachel Lebanon, TN/USA March 10, 2008

Hashem providing for our needs and wants We also struggle with how much to help people. It seems that so many people come into our lives needing help. We all have limited resources, and our immediate families also need help. It is so hard to know when to help. Until I read this article, it never crossed my mind that we are bottomless cups also in G-d's eyes, and He not only supplies our needs, He even supplies many of our wants! Reply

Anonymous Washington, DC February 27, 2007

A Valuable Article Dear Friends: I am very appreciative of Chana Weisberg's article. I have long wrestled with the appropriate boundaries for dealing with people who are extremely and relentlessly needy. It is comforting to see that someone else is struggling a well, and to read her take on the issue. Thank you! Reply

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