Perhaps the most prominent recurring theme in Bereishit (the book of Genesis), is names. The names of Adam and Eve have significant meaning, and the first great task that mankind ever undertook was nothing less than bestowing names on the animals. A fellow named Avrum had his name changed to Avraham, Sarai became Sarah, their son is named Laughter—Yitzchak—and his son ends up with two names. There is more, but you get the idea.
All this talk of names got me thinking about our family’s experience with homeless people. It all began about eight or nine years ago when we were living in Baltimore. My wife and I once took a little in-town vacation at the Baltimore harbor. We did what we always do; we took long walks, mostly along the Inner Harbor-Fells Point-Canton waterfront. It was great, and over the course of those few days we had some encounters with homeless people. You know, we’d give a dollar here and there, even a bottle of water, and then we’d keep on walking. When we got home we told our kids about what we did, including meeting homeless people. About a week later, after a family dinner at our favorite restaurant, one of our kids said, “Why don’t we take the leftovers down to those people you and Mommy met on your vacation.” So we did, and that night changed all of our lives.
One thing led to another, and eventually, almost every Saturday night after Shabbat, our kids would pack up our leftovers, throw in some fruit and cookies, and we would drive down to the harbor area and distribute meals to the homeless. And what are you supposed to say when it’s the dead of winter and your daughter says, “why don’t we make a big batch of hot chocolate?” or your wife says, “Shimon, look at that guy, he’s freezing, let’s go to Wal-Mart and get a coat.” I could have said that buying a coat was going a little too far, but then I probably would have been banished to the streets myself.
Over the years we had the privilege of getting to know a number of homeless people, and we learned a lot. I would say that the most important thing we learned is that the greatest gift you can give a homeless person is a name.
Yes, people need a few dollars; they need Gatorade when they are standing on a corner in the sweltering heat, or a hot chocolate in the winter, but what they need more than anything is a name. We learned to ask people their names, and to remember them. When we would drive up, roll down our window and call out to Lonnie, Ann, Raymond, Terri, or Jim—their faces would light up. Sure, they were happy to get a dollar or a bowl of chulent, but nothing made them smile like hearing their names.
The Hebrew word for name is shem, which also means there. When you point to something and say that it is “there,” you are clearly identifying it as being distinct and separate from everything else. A person without a name, is nowhere. It’s as if they have no there, no place. They could be anyone, anywhere. When Gibbs would hear his name, despite the fact that he was huddling outside next to the steps of The Cat’s Eye Pub, he immediately knew that the people calling out to him related to him like a real person; like someone who deserved to occupy a special place in this world, even if he was homeless.
Sadly, there are homeless people in Jerusalem too. Recently we made the acquaintance of Shaul: wheelchair, seventy years old, one leg, a wild head of hair, dozens of bags stuffed with who knows what, and nowhere to live. Shaul and I have had a number of conversations about Israeli politicians, economics, alcoholism, expiration dates on orange juice, and, just the other evening, he shared with me a kabbalistic insight into tefillin. He taught me that each wrap of the tefillin has its own—you guessed it—its own name.