Running out of gas is not one of my favorite pastimes. Especially when it’s late on a Friday afternoon. Particularly in an unfamiliar neighborhood. The kind of neighborhood where you don’t just take a leisurely walk, even in the daytime. I was scared.

It started out innocently enough. I was taking my wife to a doctor’s appointment in a distant location. Since my car wasn’t working properly, I had rented another vehicle for a few days. I printed out directions from my computer. It seemed that we would be able to get to and from our destination easily enough.

Of course, the appointment took longer than anticipated, but as we left the office, it looked like we would have no trouble in making it home in time for Shabbat. We located the car, exited the lot, drove a block, and kaput, the car stopped dead in its tracks.

One look at the gas gauge was enough for even a mechanical greenhorn like me to figure out that we were out of gas. I was pretty sure that earlier in the day the tank was not that empty. Was the gas gauge on this rental car faulty, or had someone helped themselves to the remainder of our precious fuel while we were delayed in the doctor’s office?

We located the car, drove a block, and kaput, the car stopped dead in its tracksNot to fear—I sighted one of “Chicago’s Finest” just a block away. I told my wife to keep the doors locked as I reach out for help. As I approached the policeman, I straightened up and presented my case.

“Officer. I am a rabbi, the Jewish Sabbath begins at sundown, I’m stuck and out of gas. It could take the motor club a few hours to get here. Could you please drive me to the closest service station?”

“No,” was his quick, to-the-point response. “You can walk. It’s only six or seven blocks.”

Those were the longest seven blocks I had ever walked. Trying to focus on a few words of Torah to calm my fright and to turn my excursion into a mitzvah project, I finally reached my destination safely.

The gas station attendant was holed up in a little booth, with three panes of thick glass that separated him from the outside world. The microphone in the booth projected his booming voice to those standing in line as he took their money through a thin sliding drawer. Another reminder of life in this tough neighborhood.

I peered through the bulky security glass and focused on the goods offered for sale. Drinks and snacks abounded, but I couldn’t spot even one empty gas can. Sure enough, when I asked the attendant if he had something I could transport the gas in, his one-word reply, “Nope,” started to put me in a real panic.

“Where is the closest service station?” I inquired. “Six blocks thataway,” he motioned with his thumb.

At this point, I did the only thing I could think of—start searching the garbage cans. It must have been a real scene for those filling up their cars, watching a man with a long beard and black hat rummaging through the trash.

The sight of the large gallon-sized plastic orange juice container was a dream come trueBut Someone was looking out for me that day. The sight of the large gallon-sized plastic orange juice container that I finally spotted was a dream come true. I pulled it out, emptied the remaining contents, and proceeded to fill it with gas.

I hardly noticed the person in the car at the next gas pump who was trying to get my attention. “Do you need a ride someplace?” he asked.

I tried to make a quick calculation: is it more dangerous to walk back alone, or to accept a ride from a total stranger?

I said a silent prayer and finally answered, “Sure do. That would be so kind of you. It’s just a couple of blocks away.”

After giving my newfound chauffeur the directions to my stranded car, I thought it best to try and make some friendly conversation until we reached our destination.

“You know—what you are doing is a real good deed,” I said.

“You mean a mitzvah,” he replied. “Aren’t you from Chabad?” he continued—pronouncing it “tchabad.”

Shocked, I looked at him again and finally asked, “Are you Jewish?”

“No way,” he answered. “Do I look Jewish?”

“So how do you know what a mitzvah is? And that I’m from Chabad?” I asked.

This is the story he told me:

“I used to go to a college out East. My roommate was Jewish, but didn’t really practice it very much. On Saturday mornings, there was this rabbi from the Chabad House with a long beard—something like yours—that would come to our room and try to get my friend to go to services. The rabbi would always say that he needed my friend for the services, for the minyan.

“My friend never wanted to go. He would rather sleep. I felt badly for the rabbi, and even offered to help out. The rabbi was very nice, but explained that I couldn’t help his minyan problem. Instead we would talk about the world, and how acts of goodness are needed. You know—more mitzvot.

“So when I saw you standing at the gas pump with that container, I thought of that rabbi, and that maybe it was time to do a mitzvah.”

A moment later my car was in sight. “Thanks so much,” I said, about to leave the car.

“One second, Rabbi, not so fast,” he replied. “How are you going to get the gas in the tank without a spout?”

“I hadn’t thought of that.”

Sure enough, this kind soul didn’t leave until he figured out a way to get the gas in the car, and made sure that it started and was ready to go.

I thanked him profusely, offered a token gift that he very politely refused, and soon we were on our way.

I had been witness to more than a random act of kindness. In fact, a heavenly window had opened just a bitAs we drove home and I told my wife all about the “mitzvah man,” I realized that I had been witness to more than a random act of kindness. In fact, a heavenly window had opened just a bit, so that I could catch a small glimpse of the really big picture.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe taught us that we should reach out to our fellow Jews of every background and affiliation, and give them the opportunity to do even one more mitzvah. Oftentimes we are successful in persuading a stranger on the street to put on tefillin—even just one time. Sometimes a friendly conversation with our fellow airline traveler could lead to a commitment to light Shabbat candles that coming Friday evening.

That nagging thought often haunts us. Is it worthwhile? It’s only one mitzvah. It’s only one time.

Truth be told, those are really not the most difficult questions. We could definitely make the case that the value of even one good deed is infinite, it’s G‑dly, it’s eternal. Especially since mitzvot are infectious, one always leads to the next.

What’s worse, though, is rejection. You try your best, reach out, and make a significant pitch for a chance to connect with something holy—and you are turned down flat. “I’m not interested.” “I’m not that religious.” “I’m not into practicing Judaism now.” Or a flat blank look that says, “Just bug off.”

It takes the wind out of your sails. You feel like you have run out of gas. You wonder whether it is really worth it.

And then the window of destiny opens for a glimpse of the eternal. Our “mitzvah man” reminded us that there is a much bigger picture out there.

No effort, big or small, is ever for naught. It might take a while for the words to sink in and take effect. It might necessitate a few more steps until everything clicks. Our sages taught that “sincere words from the heart always touch the other’s heart.” It’s just that you don’t know exactly when, precisely how, or even which heart.

We made it home in time for Shabbat. That evening, as my wife lit the Shabbat candles, we thanked the One Above for all his kindnesses that day. We stood in awe of our improbable rescuer, and we prayed that the Chabad rabbi on that East Coast college campus never gives up searching for his minyan.