Turkish Jews often told this story to exemplify a meritorious approach to charity.1

In a faraway town, there lived a wealthy woman. She was unmarried and had no children, yet enjoyed quite a comfortable life, living in a sprawling mansion with tastefully arranged rooms and plush furniture. She also dealt with a lot of scrutiny from her neighbors.

Early each morning, the woman was seen leaving her house, and only long after the sun had set and most of the town was sound asleep did she return home. Her neighbors couldn’t tell what the purpose of her outings was and were ashamed to ask. Gossip followed her around like a shadow, but her daily whereabouts remained a mystery.

Curiosity finally compelled one of the neighbors to stop the woman one day and ask, “If you’re willing, please tell me what you do all day. You’re rich, basking in an opulent home and missing nothing at all. What is it you’re looking for out there?”

“You’re correct,” said the wealthy woman, smiling. “While I do have a home to live in here in This World, I spend my days building a home for the World to Come.”

There was a pause as the neighbor thought for a moment. She looked up and said, “I agree. My home is also quite big, and I’m not in need of anything. Perhaps I, too, should consider building something for myself in the World to Come.”

The wealthy woman looked pleased. “Fine. Every so often, I’ll come to take some money from you and use it to build your house in the World to Come. Is that alright?”

But she almost didn’t need the confirmation; her neighbor, who obviously agreed, appeared quite excited about the arrangement. And so the wealthy woman began to come around to her neighbor almost every day to collect large amounts of money, adding something like, “This is for the foundation,” or, “This will ensure the walls look nice.” She never failed to keep her neighbor abreast of the building and always specified what the money was for.

Construction persisted for the longest time, but finally—as the neighbor steadily learned from the wealthy woman’s descriptions—resulted in a palatial home.

“Now that it’s finished,” said the neighbor cheerily, “I think I’ll stop here, for I’ve given you a lot to work with, isn’t that right? It’s nice to have something to look forward to in the World to Come.”

Feeling rather content, the neighbor lay down for the night, her head swimming with pleasant visions of her new, heavenly home. Those visions, however, faded into a dream about a strange old man with a long silvery beard, who introduced himself as an angel.

“I’ve come to warn you,” the angel said, “that although it was your money invested, it’ll be your neighbor living inside that house in the World to Come. You, as unfair as it may seem, will have to resort to sleeping on its doorstep.”

The following morning, the neighbor woke up shaken, her chest constricted with dread. Had she truly lost her entire investment? With this and other questions weighing on her mind, the neighbor ran to the wealthy woman’s house and began to knock frantically. The wealthy woman opened the door, looking terrified at her neighbor's sudden panic.

“You claim to have built me a home,” cried the neighbor. “But in my dream, an angel told me otherwise! What have you done with my money? Tell me the truth.”

An uncomfortable silence followed.

“I suppose it’s time,” sighed the wealthy woman, lowering her eyes, “to tell you where I go for most of the day. Of course, I’m rather aware that my secret departures aren’t, in fact, secret anymore—every neighbor knows about them by now. In any case, I spend my days visiting wealthy households in other communities and collecting the donations, and whatever I manage to accrue goes to the poor.

“If, let’s say, a poverty-stricken family has a new baby, I visit them almost daily, making sure neither food nor supplies are lacking. Sometimes, I also tidy up their home. If a poor young woman becomes a bride, I’m there to ensure that indigence doesn’t mar her happiest day. That’s where I’m off to every morning.”

The neighbor stood there quietly and mulled over what she had heard. She felt newfound respect for the wealthy woman. There was evidently more to building a home in the World to Come than plain generosity, whatever the amount. Action, it seemed, was what mattered most.

From that day on, there were two women seen hurrying from their homes in the early morning, finally reappearing when the stars had come out. If one knew their secret, it would be obvious that the glow on their tired but contented faces wasn’t reflecting the moon, but rather emanating from their benevolent efforts.