I don’t know how many of you remember the comedian Jerry Lewis. He was quite popular when I was young. Not just for his zany movies but for hosting the Muscular Dystrophy Telethon every year on Labor Day.
The Telethon was a big event in our house growing up. Every year my mother would let my brothers and I stay up late to watch the Telethon, not all night, of course, but until 11 or even midnight as we got older, quite a treat for us when regular bedtime was around 8 or 9 pm. We would gather in the living room before our flickering black and white TV. My Mom would sit in her chair with her coffee and knitting. My brothers and I sat in our PJs, moving between the couch and the floor, eager to see who the guests would be and if our favorites would be on before we had to go to bed.
The greatest thrill of the evening was always when my Mom decided it was time to “make the call,” to call the number on the screen to give our pledge. The pledge was the same every year. Ten Dollars. That doesn’t sound like much. It isn’t even the price of a movie ticket today. True it was the 1960s and dollars went farther then. Even so, ten dollars was not a lot. But it was a lot for my family who lived in public housing on a simple fireman’s salary. Even though it wasn’t a lot, at least we could give something. And we did, faithfully, every year. After getting off the phone, my mom would smile and with a satisfied sigh, say, “Every little bit helps.” My brothers and I felt great knowing we had helped, even if only a little, because even a little could add up to a lot, as we could tell from the totals climbing on the Telethon board every few hours.
Every little bit helps.
If we think about it, it’s true isn’t it? Every little bit does help. Ten bucks turns into 100 when ten people give; a thousand when 100 people give; ten thousand when 1000 give. You get the idea.
As I look back on those Labor Day weekends, I remember my mother’s smile and her sigh. With her passing, now more than ten years ago, I began to wonder about that sigh. Had she wished she could give more? I don’t know. All I remember is the excitement my brothers and I felt to be part of this great undertaking she included us in and how we felt like a million dollars because we were able to help. She did that for us. She gave us the gift of knowing that every little bit helps.
Every little bit does help. That is a good philosophy not just to guide our charitable giving in hard times but in every aspect of our lives. By ourselves we cannot change the world. But every little bit helps make things better for particular individuals and for the world as a whole. Whether in how we give, how we live, or how we choose to spend our time, if we take every opportunity to help someone else even a little bit, then we are doing a lot to leave the world a little bit better than how we found it.
Let me tell you a story I heard from my friend Rabbi Toba August. She doesn’t know who wrote it. It sounds like something from Chicken Soup for the Soul. It is from a while ago about a woman recounting how a simple grocer understood that even a little bit can mean a lot. I will tell it in the first person, as it is written, though I have edited it for time:
“I was at the corner grocery store (when)…I noticed a small boy…ragged but clean, hungrily appraising a basket of freshly picked green peas…I was (also) drawn to the display…Pondering the peas, I could not help overhearing the conversation between Mr. Miller (the store owner) and the ragged boy next to me.
“Hello Barry…How is your Ma?”
“Fine. Gittin’ stronger alla’ time.”
“Good. Anything I can help you with?”
“No sir. Jus’ admirin’ them peas.”
“Would you like to take some home?” …
“No Sir. Got nuthin’ to pay for ‘em with.”
“Well,” (Mr. Miller said) “What have you to trade for some of those peas?”
“All I’ve got is my prize marble here.”
“Is that right? Let me see it,” said Mr. Miller.
“Here ‘tis. She’s a dandy.”
“I can see that. Hummm. Only thing is that this one is blue and I sort of go for red. Do you have a red one like this at home?” Mr. Miller asked.
“Not zackley but almost.”
“Tell you what. Take this sack of peas home with you and next trip this way let me look at that red marble.”
“Sure will. Thanks Mr. Miller.”
Mrs. Miller came over to help me. With a smile she said, “There are three (boys in our community) in very poor circumstances. Jim just loves to bargain with them for peas, apples, tomatoes, or whatever. When they come back with their red marbles, and they always do, he decides he does not like red after all and he sends them home with a bag of produce for a green marble…when they come on their next trip to the store.”…
(The years passed)…but I never forgot the story of this man, the boys and their bartering for marbles…
...[ When I learned] Mr. Miller …died,… I agreed to accompany [my friends] to the … mortuary [for the visitation]. We fell into line to meet the relatives of the deceased and to offer whatever words of comfort we could.
Ahead of us … were three young men. One was in an army uniform. The other two wore… dark suits and white shirts – all very professional looking. They approached Mrs. Miller…hugged her…spoke briefly with her, and moved on to the casket…Her misty …eyes followed them…as each… placed his own warm hand briefly over the …cold pale hand in casket…
Our turn came to meet Mrs. Miller…I reminded her of the story from those many years ago…about her husband bartering for marbles. With her eyes glistening, she took my hand and let me to the casket…
With loving gentleness she lifted (her husband’s hand). Resting underneath were three…red marbles.
We never know how a little good can make a great difference. It did for these three boys.
Every little bit helps. Sometimes that help is a ten dollar check. Sometimes a bag of peas.
I like to think that that is one of the lessons of our holiday today, Shemini Atzeret. We are done with the grandeur of the Sukkot festival. In place of the 70 sacrifices offered over Sukkot, today the priests offered just one sacrifice. That is all God really asks of us. One little sacrifice. One little donation. One minute of kindness. One act of generosity or caring. Every little bit helps.
This summer, as I went through the mail that accumulated while we were gone, I found the little envelope from MDA with its picture of Jerry Lewis in the corner. It has been years since I have been able to watch the Telethon. Now, at that time of year, I am usually working hard on my High Holy Day sermons. Jerry, sadly, wasn’t even going to be part of this year’s Telethon. Time marches on, for better or worse in so many ways. Yet, when I found that little envelope, time stood still and for a few moments I was transported back to the living room of our Bronx apartment sitting before the flickering black and white TV. And I knew what I had to do. I wrote out a ten dollar check. I would give more later in the year, but at this time, and really every Labor Day, I send Muscular Dystrophy ten dollars in my mother’s memory.
Every little good can make a great difference. My mother’s ten dollar check may not have funded the cure for Muscular Dystrophy but it made a great difference, an indelible difference, to me as her daughter. Her memory continues as a blessing in teaching me to be thankful for what I have, to share what I have with others, and to do a little good wherever I can because every little bit helps. Needless to say, her lifetime of little bits created a great treasure of memories.
May we fill our lives with many such little bits of good so that when our time comes and our loved ones will be able to see how our efforts, however modest, not only helped make the world a little better but added up to make a great difference in their lives. And let us say Amen.
[i] Dedicated to Jerry Lewis who did much good in the world and taught us all that every little bit helps.