Posted by: R Jonathan Gewirtz | December 4, 2014

Do Me a Favor

If there are three little words that make people’s hearts flutter, then these four little words make them cringe. When people ask us to do them a favor, our hearts generally sink. We know that we have a relationship (most of the time) and that we want to keep it going, but we’re afraid of what we will be asked to do.

We view doing favors for people as a necessary evil, something we need to do to keep getting the benefits of the relationship that we’re accustomed to. Sometimes it’s easy, like when someone says, “Would you watch my chair while I go to get more food from the buffet?” or even if your buddy asks for a ride to the mechanic down the street. Five minutes, no problem. Sometimes it’s more complicated, when someone asks you to do something you really don’t want to do, like taste their new recipe for Brussels sprouts casserole.

The truth is, if we look at favors that way, we’ve got it wrong. There’s an amazing story about R’ Moshe Feinstein z”l. Years ago, someone was giving him a ride.   The driver had recently installed new-fangled seat belts in his car (this was decades before they became standard, legally-required safety items) and had himself been saved from bodily harm by wearing them. He asked R’ Moshe if he would care to put on the belt.

R’ Moshe felt it wasn’t necessary and politely declined. The driver was adamant, “But they are truly a good idea; it’s safer,” he pressed. R’ Moshe told him it was OK; he didn’t feel like he needed it. By now, the driver was feeling very antsy and blurted out, “Could you do me a favor and please put on the belt?” Suddenly, R’ Moshe responded as if electrified. “A favor?? Of course!” and he quickly buckled himself in.

R’ Moshe understood that doing a favor for someone is a mitzvah, a chesed, and a great opportunity. Think about it. When you buy a gift for someone, you hope they will like it. But if they tell you exactly what they need, you know you will be getting them the right thing. Though most of us like to surprise the other person, it’s selfish, to show them how well we know them. In truth, we’d be better off with actual knowledge of what they want. So, if someone is asking us for a favor, they must really need it. We should jump on the chance to assist!

When we do favors, we must also recognize what a solemn obligation we’ve got. Say someone asks you for a ride. Do you take them to their destination, or do you get them as close as possible as long as it doesn’t inconvenience you? When R’ Elchonon Wasserman Hy”d was in America in the 1930’s, he was staying at a certain home in Brooklyn. The streets there are often one-way streets, and that can make for some extra driving. One evening, the fellow driving R’ Elchonon eased to a stop at the corner and directed R’ Elchonon that he could just get out and walk three houses up, which would avoid the driver having to go around the long block and come down the street the other way. R’ Elchonon refused. “You are doing a chesed,” he advised the driver, “you must take me to the door, even if it takes extra time and effort.”

He wasn’t being arrogant or stubborn. He was teaching the fellow HOW a Jew does a favor. People often tell us, “I need to go here, but only if it’s not out of your way.” My typical response is, “If I don’t go out of my way, then what have I done for YOU?”

One of my readers met my uncle who sent regards. Upon his return home, he called me to tell me he enjoys my articles, but more importantly, to discharge his obligation to send the regards. He understood that he had a job to do. We ended up having a pleasant conversation for almost fifteen minutes.

I once needed a package taken somewhere. I could have sent it via Fed Ex or some other carrier, but I was in a hurry and it was Friday. This way, I figured, it would get there before Shabbos and I wouldn’t have to wait until they received it on Monday. I knew someone going to that neighborhood and asked them a favor. I said, “I really appreciate this, I want him to get it before Shabbos.”

The answer surprised me. “No problem,” said the young woman who took it. “If not, then Motsai Shabbos.” I was taken aback. I had asked for a favor, made myself vulnerable by indicating that this was something I needed from her, and she was nonchalant about it.

I said nothing. I texted her several times that afternoon asking if she had been able to deliver it so I could go into Shabbos with a calm mind. I knew that based on when she was traveling she should have arrived at her destination. As the address was a few blocks from where she was going, I assumed she would drop it off on her way in. That’s what I would have done, as once I’ve accepted to do a favor, it becomes top priority.

She didn’t, and she wasn’t able to drop it off Saturday night either, as she was involved in a family simcha. Again, if it were me, I would have snuck out for a few moments right after Shabbos to take care of it, especially when I knew the sender was anxious to get it to its destination.

It was finally delivered Sunday, but what floored me was the text I received. “I delivered the package. In the future, please don’t put me in that position again. I’m happy to do a favor and deliver a package, but not if the sender is going to be so worried.”

What that means is that the woman didn’t think about the magnitude of what she was doing. R’ Moshe jumped at the chance to set a Jew’s mind at ease but she didn’t think about that. To her, she was glad to help as long as it didn’t impinge on her personal life. The fact that I had let her know how important it was to me didn’t register on her radar. She didn’t feel my anxiety that it be done quickly nor a need to put my mind at ease.

But that’s exactly what doing a favor is all about: placing the needs of someone else above your own, and grabbing a chance to do a complete chesed. Think about that the next time you’re asked to do a favor, and maybe your heart will skip a beat – in a good way.

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