The imminent approach of Passover reminds us, yet again, of the remarkable gravitational pull of this holiday. Family members gather from near and far to share a Seder, often times inviting friends and neighbors. It was not so different in ancient times, as our ancestors sometimes banded together to jointly offer their “paschal lamb” and share it on the eve of the fifteenth of Nisan- the anniversary of our ancient redemption from Egypt, and the time of our first Seder. To this day, the opening words of the Haggadah include the words Kol Dichfin Yeitei V’Yeichol- let all who are hungry come and eat.
In that spirit, I share a ma’aseh shehaya… an experience that my wife Robin and I had on the Upper West SIde of Manhattan a few weeks ago, as we were leaving a reception at a friend’s home.
We were headed to our car, walking up Broadway, when a man approached us, anxious to engage in conversation. He looked like a “street person,” perhaps not quite as bedraggled as that description might imply, but clearly down on his luck, and very agitated.
“Are you a rabbi?”, he asked. I had to stifle a laugh, because although I was wearing my kippah, that hardly would tag me as a rabbi on the streets of the Upper West Side. But he was hard to ignore, insistent on being heard, and I felt obliged to be honest and answer yes. He shared that he was a Catholic, and then proceeded to tell the story of how he had gone into a restaurant near where we were standing- one he used to frequent often when he was in better shape. He needed to use the men’s room. Given how he looked, the greeter in the restaurant had unceremoniously shown him the door, leaving him incensed and sorely insulted. When we encountered him, he was on his way back to the restaurant, to complain about his treatment and vent his frustration. In the interim, he was venting it on us.
For those of us who live in New York, the sad truth is that such encounters with people on the street are not particularly rare. I’m sure New York is not unique in this regard. I was just about to chalk the whole thing up to one of those chance “things that happen in the city” when the the man who had stopped us looked my wife and me squarely in the eye and said “You know, loneliness is a silent killer.”
I was stunned. I wasn’t expecting this chance, brief encounter to challenge me. But as he left us to go back to the restaurant that had shunned him, I realized that he had done exactly that. In most instances, I would have, and could have just gone home and forgotten about it. But as soon as he left us — or we left him — I realized that this was not just another encounter with a street person, and I resolved to write about it. But I delayed… probably because it troubled me more than I would have expected, and I didn’t really know what I might say…
To borrow a phrase from the Passover story, living in a city like New York definitely requires a certain “hardening of the heart.” Unless you’re going to devote yourself to volunteering in a homeless shelter, or contributing significantly to a worthy agency that works on helping people who are living marginal lives on the street, in some way you have to become desensitized to the distress that is around you, if you even allow yourself to notice it. I claim no exemption from this tendency. Like so many of us who live a life of relative plenty, it is easier and much more convenient to pretend not to see. What this man on the street said, however, touched me more deeply than usual because it wasn’t about material need, or poverty, or homelessness per se… it was simply about loneliness. It was about not having someone- anyone- who cares, who would miss you if you were gone, with whom you could commiserate. Loneliness… a silent killer.
Making sure that those who are in need have a place to eat, particularly on this anniversary of our redemption from Egyptian slavery, is indeed a key teaching of the Haggadah. But the greater and, I believe, far more difficult challenge is empathizing with them, allowing ourselves to transcend our not-always-so-subtle condescension to actually appreciate how difficult their lives must be. In every generation, the Haggadah also teaches, one is obligated to see him/herself as if he personally had left Egypt. Maybe what that man on the street was trying to tell me was that some of us are still there…Jewish, Gentile or other.
All the lonely people, where do they all come from? All the lonely people, where do they all belong?