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Friday, August 1, 2014

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Could it be me?

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“And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very corners of your field…”

The man standing in the shade, the panhandler, looks like you.

I move forward and realize it is you. Not wanting to shame you, or me, I lean up against a pole, cross my feet and look away.

You see me. I expect you’ll be ashamed and will run, but the opposite occurs. You’re coming over to me, and while I didn’t turn and rush away when I spotted you, I’m now wishing for a distraction. I’m hoping I’m asleep.

You shout my name. “Ha, Avrum, how are you doing?” almost as if we’re at the supermarket bantering pointlessly about pomegranates.

I respond, “I’m good,” in a cheery sort of way, but shrouded in “not really.” I’m humiliated because I must be embarrassing you so badly. I’m so embarrassed. Your walls are gone. Build them up.

You were fine. We travelled to Israel together, and now you are an ani, a poor man. And the Torah has rules for how I am to respond to you: “Do not rob [hold back gifts from] the impoverished because he is impoverished.” (Proverbs, 22)

You are “the most vulnerable.”

What happened to you, David? Your children? Your home? The community? Your wife? Did she leave you? Did I fail you?

You’re a step away from me now. I can see a square of earth matted in your hair. I smell you. You used to wear a distinctive cologne and we’d envy your tanned elegance.

But now your eyes have dimmed. You have whiskey on your breath like at our kiddush club. The rabbi wouldn’t approve.

It was 8 a.m. 

“David, I didn’t know you were out here,” I said, my voice weighted down by heartbreak. “I knew business was tough, but I hadn’t heard about this,” and I waved my hands at his plastic bags and stroller.

You didn’t want to be distracted by my shock and curious despair. My intensity had no effect on your response. You stood carefree and broken. What happened next made me turn away in grief. You asked me for money. And while I jumped to hand you some, your new life booted me shamelessly in the shins. You are homeless, Dave, and only a short while ago, you supported our community’s poor. You gave tzedakah. But you are “the stranger” now.

I had never been friends with a homeless person. The question of “could it be me?” had seemed so intellectual, like a warning to everyone else. What happened to you, David, that made it you? What was the turning point? When did love and community stop holding you together?

I handed you five $20 bills, and I believe I asked you to meet me at this spot tomorrow. In a lucid moment, the filmy transparency in your eyes disappeared and our sombre thoughts linked. We held our gaze and I felt an abundance of love, and I wasn’t sure if it was for you, or for the poor, or for me.

I turned Dave’s shirt collar down. I touched my hand to his cheek, to feel his skin, hoping it felt different from mine.

Ve’ahavta has launched the Could it be Me? campaign to help the homeless.

“….you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger. I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus, 19)

Avrum@veahavta.org

This column appears in the April 5 print issue of The CJN

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