I’ve driven down Roosevelt Boulevard before. I’ve avoided eye contact with the homeless I’ve seen there and wished for traffic lights to stay green so that I wouldn’t have to stop.
Yet, on a Sunday morning only a few weeks before Rosh Hashana, I drove down the Boulevard with my husband in the passenger seat. We pulled up to a red light and, noticing a disheveled man with a sign approaching us, tried to look straight ahead and pray the light would change soon. As he peered into our car, we patted down our pockets for show and mouthed “we have nothing.”
But as he continued to look at us, he saw my headscarf and my husband’s kippah, and his tone changed. “Ani Yehudi!” he yelled at us, “I’m a Jew!”
It took a moment to process; this snippet of Hebrew in the most unexpected encounter. “Ani Yehudi!” he said again as he pulled up his sleeve to show us a big Star of David tattooed on his upper arm. I think I felt my heart break. I couldn’t look away. Suddenly he was my brother and I had refused to help him.
In a silent conversation between husband and wife, we again patted down our pockets. Nothing. “What about a granola bar?” I asked, searching my own purse to see if I had an extra. Nothing. We looked back at him to shake our heads and show we were sorry we couldn’t help and the light turned green.
We couldn’t help a fellow Jew. We couldn’t, or we didn’t? Either thought was upsetting to me and his face and words have haunted my thoughts as we approach Rosh Hashana.
Teshuva, returning to the state of purity our souls yearn for, is a growth process. It means being put in the same situation another time and choosing to act in a different way.
Driving down Roosevelt Boulevard two weeks later, we reached the intersection where we had encountered our fellow Jew. Both of us searched: could we see him? Was he still there? Was there someone else in need in his place instead? No, no, and no.
But what had changed? We had purchased an extra box of granola bars to keep in the car, but was it there? No. If I had seen the same man again, if he had tried to connect with us again and in the same way, would anything have been different? Would we have patted down our pockets and been able to hand him anything? Would we have searched the car for the nosh that wasn’t there? I found myself wondering if he would have been disappointed in us, as crazy as that sounds.
Really, had anything changed but my thoughts?
Usually, on Rosh Hashana, I start to think about the words Avinu Malkeinu, our Father, our King. In year’s past, I’ve focused on the idea of our Father also being our King, but this year my focus has been on the suffix –nu, our. OUR Father, OUR King.
At a time like this, when we may be experiencing the re-opening of our communities while others may still be strictly under quarantine, how much more powerful will our prayers be, even apart, as we recall the same idea from our respective places of prayer be they homes, parking lots, indoor services, and other venues.
“Ani Yehudi, I’m a Jew,” is not just one person’s cry. It is our joint one. Am Echad, b’Lev Echad, one nation with one heart. When one of us cries, we all do. May this serve as a reminder to us as we observe the holidays this year.