I stepped onto the crowded 4 train at 14th St and wiggled my way deeper into the seating area where there was only one seat open next to what appeared to be a homeless man. I stood next to the open seat and immediately the man mumbled something about my beard. “You’re Jewish, right?”
“Very good,” I smiled.
“The Jews are doubly blessed,” he stated. And then in a high-pitched almost sing-song drawl: “You are the seed of Abraham…You can’t help it…You are who you are.”
I took the sole remaining seat right next to the “bum” and thus began a 35-minute conversation ranging from how he went from moving from shelter to shelter for three years before finding a residential facility to live in Crown Heights to how he wants to learn the “Laws of Moses” and comprehend them and when he sees a “Jewish church” he wants to go in and study “but you know how it is, being black and all. I’m really from the ghetto, man.”
I taught him one of the most fundamental teachings of Judaism and Chassidus regarding the deeper meaning of what it means to love your fellow “as you love yourself.” Before even sharing the insight with him he started to get inspired and share his thoughts on what it meant.
“Yea, I never thought of that. How can we love somebody like we love ourselves when we don’t love ourselves? I kill myself every day by drinking and smoking. If I’m killing myself, how can I love somebody else?”
He was quoting Solomon and David and almost everything he said came in the form of open-ended questions and honest, out-loud self-reflection.
I explained to him that “love your fellow as you love yourself” means that we must love others in the same manner as we love ourselves. Each of us love ourselves so intensely that we don’t see our own flaws and in that same manner we must love our fellow — our love for them concealing their deficiencies.
We spoke about how loving our fellow human being is more important than loving G-d, as we are each, as he put it, “gods with a small g.” He comprehended very well, expressed awe and amazement at the concepts and gratitude for the “principles” which I had shared with him. And of course I thanked him for what he had shared with me.
Though he seemed quite intelligent, it was his depth, gentility, sincerity, and humility which impressed me most. (Not to mention his cheery disposition and priceless smile.) I had thoroughly enjoyed my conversation with Kevin — a true exchange — and I walked away inspired by him and how open he was.
As we parted ways at the Utica Avenue station (“Man, the moment you got on that train you and I just clicked”) and I got above ground, a middle-aged woman walking in the same direction said “How’d you get him to calm down?”
I didn’t understand.
“What did you say to him to calm him down?”
Huh? He seemed quite relaxed to me.
“I’m not sure what you mean,” I told her.
“Everyone was scared of him. He was yelling and screaming at everybody on that train that they’re all going to hell, that he’s going to hell and that he’s taking everybody with him. Before you started speaking to him, there wasn’t a person on that train that wasn’t absolutely frightened. What did you say to him to calm him down?”
“He mentioned something about my beard and then asked if I was -Jewish and so we started talking.”