“It is better to trust in God than to put confidence in human beings.”
I was grabbing a cup of coffee on Tuesday morning at Penn Station in New York when I heard a well-dressed young man talking loudly on his cellphone in an agitated voice. He was holding an Amtrak police report and telling his mother that his wallet and ID were taken. I naturally overheard snippets of the conversation and asked him if he needed some help. He had no train ticket; I asked him where he was going and what it would cost and gave him the cash I had in my wallet. Thirty dollars. He was very gracious, leaned in to give me an awkward and unwelcome hug, said thank you and called my cellphone to leave his number. If I texted him my address, he would send back the money.
About a half an hour later (my train was delayed), I saw the same man speaking loudly on the phone in front of another woman waiting for the train. Suddenly the likelihood that I was scammed seemed certain. I walked over to the station police to find out if he really did file a report. He had. The office, nevertheless, looked at me from his newspaper with disdain. In a heavy New York accent, he cautioned me: “Lady, when you’re in a train station, do me a favor. Get on your train. Don’t give anyone money, OK?”
At home that evening, I discussed what had happened with my kids. “You’ll never see the money,” my son said. I didn’t expect to, but I texted the number anyway to see if he got home. Guess what? He did not write back.
Honestly, I would do the same thing again. It’s only money. After all, one of my children could easily have been robbed in a train station. I could have been in this man’s position, and I, too, would have had to rely on the kindness of strangers. The kindness of strangers is probably more important to us that any other kindness, following in the Abrahamic tradition. The kindness of a stranger affirms that we are on this planet not merely as self-interested beings who take care of those we know but are part of a universal grammar of humanity.
Today is Rosh Hodesh Kislev, the Hebrew month that houses the holiday of Hanukkah. On this day, we add special prayers of thanksgiving to acknowledge a new chapter of time and the goodness that it brings. In these prayers, we read the verse from psalms above that tells us not to place ultimate trust in human beings. Only God is our refuge, following the famous witticism of American statistician William Edwards Deming, “In God we trust; all others must bring data.”
Throughout the Hebrew Bible we read a great deal about the limitations of trust. In Proverbs 3:5, we are even told to minimize self-trust for a posture of humility: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart; and lean not on your own understanding.” And during the ancient days of Hanukkah we could not rely upon the goodness of strangers. As a small people, we had to fortify ourselves for war. And today we find ourselves, sadly, in a similar position and must do all that we can to assure that Israel remains strong and secure in the vulnerable days ahead.
Although we ultimately can trust only in God, we cannot live a life of purpose and meaning unless we learn to trust other people. Some number of them will abuse our kindnesses and exploit our trust. They will think of us as naïve. Let them. That is the price we pay for being human. But the larger price would be to stop trusting people and withhold all small transactions of goodness out of suspicion. The result would be a world much contracted, devoid of sanctity and blessing. Giving of ourselves to strangers allows us to become more loving and gracious in a world full of pain. We can all afford to trust a little bit more in others.