Accounts Payable

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21 Jun 2007

Free rides are an expensive proposition. What they don’t cost in money, they cost in time and convenience. If you’ve ever tried hitching one, you know what I’m talking about.

Sure, you can come with us, but we don’t know exactly when we’re leaving.

Call in about fifteen minutes.

Oh, no, we aren’t ready yet; we should leave within the hour.

We’re leaving any minute; can you be waiting at the corner?

Sure, sure, anything. What don’t you do for a free ride?

It isn’t only rides. Try getting an opinion, an estimate, a tutorial session, gratis. Not a serious job, of course; just a quick look, a general idea, a few lines.

You may hav a cousin who’s a carpenter, a friend who’s an editor, a neighbor who’s a play therapist. They may be the nicest people with the best of intentions. They’re also busy individuals, parents, jobholders, service people. They want to help you, they really do. You just won’t get the same commitment a dollar will buy.

Money has binding power. Even $5 earns the consumer’s rights, turns you from a beneficiary into a benefactor. It buys you your dignity, your sense of proprietorship, your independence. A pretty worthwhile deal, in my opinion.

Which is why I like to pay my way, thank you. Hire a baby-sitter rather than take advantage of the neighbor, call a repairman rather than rely on my nephew’s good graces. Tell me what it cost, and I’ll be happy to oblige.

Last week, when I needed to spend an afternoon in Tell Aviv, I put my policy into effect. The older girls were thrilled to spend their afternoon with friends, the boys would be in yeshivah. The younger clan posed the problem.

All my attempts to locate a responsible babysitter failed. The woman I generally use was out of town, and her daughters couldn’t help me. Babysitters are a hard-to-come-by species all year round. With finals and state exams to study for, finding one was an impossible feat.

I was beginning to get really discouraged, when I suddenly remembered the babysitter in the next building. True, she usually worked the morning hours, but I would explain the urgency of the situation.

And I would pay her, of course.

“Hm,” she sounded hesitant. “How many children?”

“Three,” I said, holding my breath, “But the two girls don’t need much. They usually play together quite nicely.”

I hear her uncertainty as she considered the proposition. There went her afternoon nap, her list of errands, her plans to do anything of consequence all Tuesday afternoon.

“I’ll pay you, of course,” I interjected quickly, trying to tip her deliberations in my favor, “whatever the going price is for afternoon hours.”

Tomorrow afternoon, until around 7, you say,” she calculated out loud, disregarding my mention of remuneration.

I hung quietly on the line, nervously doodling threes all over an envelope, as she mentally fiddled with my request.

“O.K. I’ll do it.”

I exhaled with relief.

“But please don’t tell anyone. I don’t usually accept afternoon jobs.”

“Of course,” I gushed in compliance. At that point, she could have asked me to move a mountain.

At 7:30 the next evening, I stepped off the bus, tired, disoriented, checking my watch in disbelief. There is something about spending that hour between dusk and nightfall on a dark bus that makes you lose your sense of time. The little ones were usually fast asleep at this hour. It seemed like an eternity since I had left the lighted streets of Tel Aviv.

Squinting into the mirror plaque on the baby-sitter’s door, I tried to smooth my disheveled appearance as I knocked. I listened to the sounds of running water and the patter of feet, then the turn of the lock, and a weary smile. Three little displaced persons were sitting in the front hall, washed and combed, waiting for their mother.

“There was terrible traffic on the way back,” I apologized as I scooped up my bathed booty into a sweeping hug. “I can’t thank you enough.”

I fumbled for my wallet with my free hand and pulled out two bills, a hundred and then a fifty, which I handed to the baby-sitter.

Mah pit’om?” she protested, sticking the fifty into the hood of the baby’s stroller, “It’s 100 shekels; not a penny more.”

“But I told you I would pay the afternoon rate. I know what it means, working during off-hours.”

“I don’t have an afternoon rate,” she countered emphatically. “I work for 7 shekels an hour, 6 for a third child, and that totals exactly 100 shekels.”

“But I want to pay you for making the exception,” I almost pleaded, as I handed back the fifty. The limp purple banknote fluttered to the floor.

“You’re confusing two accounts,” she told me with typical Israeli forthrightness. “Choivos darf men tzulen; toivos darf men shuldig bleiben.” (Debts are meant to be paid; favors are meant to be owed.)

I looked at the bill on the floor, and considered leaving it there. Then her words penetrated, a minute late. I stooped to pick up the money, thanked her profusely, and freed her of my charges.

Tovos darf men shuldig bleiben. I chewed the sentence over in my mind. It didn’t taste very appealing.

This lady, a woman whom I had never paid much more than a perfunctory nod when I passed her, had tended my three children all afternoon. She had fed them and played with them and showered them clean. And all the while, I had felt completely at peace.

I wasn’t taking any free rides. I had 150 shekels in my purse. A hundred for the job; 25 for the off-hours, and another 25 to wipe my ledger clean.

Flawless math; it was the accounting that had been faulty. Gratitude, the baby-sitter was telling me, was not about clean ledgers. It wasn’t about 50 shekels either. It was the art of remaining beholden, of acknowledging that you were the recipient of a favor.

The hundred shekels were her due; debts had to be paid. For a measly 50 <shekels, though, she wasn’t ready to auction off the favor of having given me her entire afternoon. All she wanted was my genuine appreciation.

We all love being benefactors. Paying empowers us, neutralizes the vulnerability of having to ask another human being for something. As long as we pay, we can tolerate someone scrubbing our stoves for us, ironing our shirts, making supper for our families.

Sometimes, though, circumstances force us to be the beneficiaries. “I’ll pay,” we offer benevolently, proffering the magic bills that we think will bail us out of indebtedness. Not always, however, are the things we need from others the stuff that money buys.

Sometimes, whether we like it or not, we’ve got to accept a free ride. Time and inconvenience, emotional and physical energy, embarrassment and anxiety aren’t things that bills can gloss over. Even if we’ve paid the token $10, we might be getting a free ride. Knowing that is part of being human. And integral to being Jewish.

A Jew is beholden. Period. We owe our lives, and we owe our souls. We owe our health, and we owe our success. There is no currency that can pay for the gifts of strength and sanity, friends and family. Our existence is rooted in gratitude.

And gratitude isn’t a thing. It isn’t silver and it isn’t silk; it isn’t a present and it isn’t a check. It isn’t that uneasy feeling that we try to smother by sending elaborate gifts and arrangements.

It might be a card. Or a poem. A phone call. Or a letter. It might be a favor a few months down the line. Or a heartfelt tefillah. Gratitude is anything that blooms from the humble, heartwarming knowledge that someone else has done us a good turn.

Gratitude doesn’t cost money. It’s pride that costs.

So keep the difference.

You’ll be a richer person for the change.

Reprinted from Mirrors and Windows by Malky Feig with permission of the copyright holders, ArtScroll / Mesorah Publications, Ltd.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.