Posted on September 22, 2010 by Mosheh
Before coming to learn at Pardes I lived in Chicago for five years. Having moved from the suburbs of Detroit, I was quite taken aback by actually living in the ‘big city’ for the first time in my life. One of the things which really struck me was all the homeless people on the streets. Who were they? Why were they there? How do I tell if they’re really in need, or just hustling? Not really knowing what I would get into, and not knowing that I would spend the next few years working with homeless people full time, I decided to spend a day in downtown Chicago begging for money as a project for one of my graduate psychology classes.
It’s hard to describe the experience. It was definitely strange, and uncomfortable. The world looks very different on that ‘other side,’ on the side of having to ask someone for something, or sitting on the sidewalk and looking up at all the strangers walking by. What was particularly striking to me is how much I felt not seen and even hurt by the people, of whom there were many, who avoided walking by me at all costs. I knew that I did not ‘need’ their money, and that whatever I received I was going to charity. At the same time, the experience of people avoiding me, over, and over, and over, and over again… was something I’d thankfully never experienced before and really really hard.
So I was reminded of this as I learned something in Brachot 12a earlier this week, “Anyone who has an opportunity to beseech G-d on behalf of his fellow and doesn’t is called a sinner [chet, literally ‘missing the mark’].” What does it mean to ‘beseech G-d’ ? Does G-d literally hear our prayers? What does G-d do with them when they are heard? I don’t really know. But I can tell you from my experience with homeless people, and in my own life, it means so much just to be noticed. When people walked by me during the project and didn’t give anything, but just acknowledged me and what I was asking, it meant so so much. I think this verse in Brachot is some of the best of what Judaism has to offer. It is a reminder to really pay attention to those around us, and when you notice someone in need, whether or not you’re able to physically help, pay attention, notice them, and reach out in whatever small way you can, at least in your heart. I’m not sure if not doing so is a ‘sin,’ but I do think it is definitely missing the mark. Especially as Sukkot is almost here, a holiday on which all should be joyous, it is important to simultaneously celebrate all that can be, and remember that much more work needs to be done, to do the part each of us can.