The old man sleeping on the moldering carpet a few feet away called out in the darkness, "I didn't do it. I didn't do it." Some of the other men blanketing the floor grunted in their sleep. "I didn't do it," he called again. I rearranged the plastic bag I was using as a pillow and wondered about the nightmares plaguing the old man and who was accusing him of what. Such are the dreams of many of those who are homeless and find their way into the shelters, underpasses and doorways across the country.
I had been volunteering in the shelter for a time, coming and going, and realized that, despite my close proximity, I was subtly creating barriers that kept things at a safe distance. So one day I asked if I could stay the night. The woman running the shelter said, "Come back at check-in and we will treat you like everyone else." I did and for a very brief period some barriers did come down. But like weeds in the garden it's not a one-time affair. Understanding is transient -- shifting and moving in and out of focus.
The next morning, while eating a stale glazed donut, I introduced myself to the old man whose nightmare I intruded upon. We began a conversation. "The hardest thing," he said, "isn't that people don't give me a quarter. The hardest part is the way people walk past me. I get it if you don't want to give me anything. But I am still human. You could look at me."
The desire to keep things conveniently out of focus is not new. And our ancient rabbis understood this. One of my professors, Dr. Aryeh Cohen, introduced me to a 2,000-year-old debate as to whether one can coerce a neighbor to build a gatehouse around their common property. Rabban Shimon Ben Gamliel says, "Not all courtyards need a gatehouse." Seeking to understand the disagreement, the Talmud opens by explaining, "There is the story of that tzadik, that righteous person, who Elijah the prophet spoke with regularly. He built a gatehouse and Elijah no longer spoke with him." The question that needs to be answered is why would the prophet Elijah stop speaking to the tzadik just because he allowed his neighbors to build a gatehouse at the entrance to their property.
A couple important details to note here: It wasn't just anyone who Elijah spoke with until the gatehouse was built. It was a tzadik -- a righteous person. A term reserved for a select few. Not us common folk, but those who either by cultivation of spirit or gift from God have a heightened sense of awareness. But upon building that gatehouse the relationship was severed between the prophet and the tzadik. Why? What did the gatehouse create in the world or destroy in this relationship that ended the conversation? And with a tzadik no less.
One of the striking things to know about Elijah is he often appears in the guise of a homeless person. Elijah is the messenger who is going to announce the arrival of the Messiah -- it is why we sing eliyahu hanavi at havdalah ending Shabbat, why we have the chair of Elijah at a bris or baby naming and why we have Elijah's cup on our seder table during Passover. We are hoping that with this week, this newborn, this seder things will be different. The Messiah will arrive and the walls of separation and blindness will permanently come down. I have an image of the tzadik and Elijah speaking like neighbors or friends meeting on the sidewalk in the front yard. What happened that caused Elijah to keep walking?
Rashi, the famous medieval French rabbi, leaves no ambiguity about why the relationship ended. It was the building of the gatehouse. That structure according to Rashi silences the voices of the poor who are calling from the street and their cries are not heard. I would push Rashi a bit further. It isn't that they aren't heard, rather, they are heard only occasionally, transiently. Partially. Poverty is moved from an immediacy that haunts and confronts to a safe distance where it can be escaped and temporally vanquished. The poor are on one side and we are comfortably on the other where we can watch TV in peace. Read in quiet. Have our friends for dinner with only our laughter and conversation breaking the silence. But the voices of the poor calling out from the street or the shantytown or refugee camp are so far away that we forget they exist at all.
This debate appears in a section of the Talmud called Bava Batra that deals with contractual relations between people. In this case it is a contract about our mutual humanity. And the risk of breaking that contract. Poverty can become abstract when its faces and voices are obscured. When we can't hear the call and aren't haunted, confronted, by them. "If I look at the mass, I will never act," said Mother Teresa, "If I look at the one, I will." Those who are poor have a face, a name and a voice.
A couple months back, I passed a woman curled over in a doorway in the French Quarter of New Orleans. She looked burnt out and cast aside. I would have placed her in that giant heap of society's discarded had I not passed her again a half-hour later. She was no longer hunched over; she was holding a violin and was casting out notes like accusations. I utterly misjudged this woman thinking she was someone she wasn't. But that is true for so many in the world of the down and out. The only difference is they can't pick up a violin and call attention to our ignorance or prejudice. Shine a light or a song on our assumptions and our actions or lack there of.
One of the most striking verses in the Torah declares, "There will always be poor in the land." The founding document of the Jewish people that tradition holds was written by God and handed to Moses, states emphatically, "There will always be poor in the land." And we will never be let off the hook of collective responsibility as the verse continues, "therefore I command you, saying: You are to open your hand to your brother, to your needy one in your land ... Remember you were slaves in the land of Egypt." Remember we were slaves.
The Messiah will come when we stop building gatehouses and start opening our doors. Redemption will come when the questions about homelessness are not left to a dedicated few, but is felt as a command for our entire community whether we are learning together, praying together or celebrating together. And we hear the cries from the street and their dreams haunt us. And the voice of an old man in the darkness calling out, "I didn't do it. I didn't do it." Is not our voice for the choices we didn't make. The time we didn't commit.
Rather, Elijah might arrive when we hold each other accountable and feel commanded, and in that command hear their voices. And make uncomfortable choices. And say, "I did do it." And it is a just world we pursue with all our heart, all our soul and all our might. And the values we teach our children are actually lived out with our hands not just with our words.
Stopping by the grocery store not long ago I told my sons I had to pick up a few things. Nativ, my 7-year-old, said, "We also need to get something for Margret." Try as I might I couldn't figure out who he was talking about. "Nativ," I finally said, "Who is Margret?" "She is the woman who sells those newspapers on the sidewalk," he replied. Surprised, I wondered out loud. "Nativ, how do you know her name and what she needs?" He looked me straight in the eye and said, "Abba. I ask."
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