Tonight, as I was preparing dinner for my four-and-a-half-year-old son we heard a knock on the door. Expecting it to be the grocery delivery I went to open door. “I want to come, Abba!” My son shouted and ran to open the door before me.
To our great surprise, a large man with a kippah and a ripped t-shirt stood before us. “Please,” he said as his voice cracked holding back tears. “My wife is sick, we have four children and they are going to evict us from our house tonight if I cannot pay the rent. All I need is another two hundred and fifty shekels.”
It took me a moment to realize what was going on and I then told him to wait as I went to get my wallet. As I retrieved some money I turned to my son and asked him if he would like to give a few shekels from his purse as well. He saves small coins during the week and every Friday we buy flowers together for Shabbat with them. “Yes, Abba, let’s give him some of my money as well!” he told me.
As I collected the money I was reminded of a Rabbinic teaching that I had learned this morning about how if a poor person comes to your house it is not sufficient to just give them money. You should make them feel like a respected and loved person. We returned to the door to see the man crumpled over in tears holding on to the banister, “What am I supposed to do?” he cried out. I was on the verge of tears as well. “I am so glad that you came” I told him as I handed him a few shekels, “Please have some cold water and some fruit. Is there anything else that we can do for you?” He drank the water, refused more help and walked away.
We returned to the kitchen to make pasta and my son asked me, “Abba what would we do if that happened to us?” I began to cry. “Don’t worry” I quickly responded regaining composure, not wanting my son to see me crying. “This wouldn’t ever happen to us.” And then I remembered that it could. My son is named after my grandfather and my wife’s grandfather. Seventy-five years ago, they were both Holocaust survivors with no family or money, knocking on the doors of strangers asking for help.
I also remembered the networking conversations I had earlier today. We arrived in Israel two months ago. I have trained and worked as a Rabbi, but the rabbinic and non-profit world in Israel are in tough financial shape. I have decided to pursue a career in the exciting and impactful startup and tech scene here in Israel, a challenging pivot under normal circumstances but more so in the middle of a pandemic. While there have been a few exciting and promising leads, today three different people politely told me that I do not have the credentials for a job at their company. With so many qualified, unemployed applicants, they explained, why should they take a risk on me?
I have been unemployed for four months now. Fortunately, my wife and I saved up money before moving to Israel and she continues to receive a stipend from her PhD program. We are also incredibly fortunate to have a very wide and supportive network of friends and family. I cannot imagine a scenario in which I would have to beg on the streets for money. I know that if we were in serious financial trouble, I could ask for help from my family or friends. Unfortunately, many people do not have such a strong support network. COVID and unemployment have been particularly devastating for these people. Bina and I are reminded of this when we occasionally get phone calls from people that we know in Senegal who are struggling during this pandemic. I assume that this man in Jerusalem also does not have a network or family who can help him out.
I told my son what I know to be true: The Jewish people take care of each other. We help when others are in need. That is what it means to be a Jew. The rabbis sometimes lovingly refer to Jews as the merciful ones, the children of merciful ones. My grandfather knew that he could rely on fellow survivors after the war, and in a totally different set of circumstances, I have benefited greatly in my job search from dozens of wonderful people helping me find a job. Just as we gave this poor man money today, I explained to my son, Jews have always and will always give money to help people in need. Despite the challenges of COVID we will continue to be a compassionate and merciful people.
Wednesday night marks the beginning of Tisha B’Av when Jews around the world will mourn the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. The Talmud teaches that the Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam, unbounded hatred. Jews hated each other so much and without reason, that God decided that they no longer deserved to have a Temple. Every year I hear people quote Rav Kook, who taught that just as the Temple was destroyed with unbounded hatred, it will only be rebuilt with unbounded love. The world is in such great need of healing and love right now. I hope that we can find within ourselves the ability to continue to love and support each other through these challenging times.