I am guilty, as are so many of us, of managing to not notice certain people regardless of how often we see them, and despite (or perhaps because of) the important, if menial, role they play in our lives.
Case in point, the man who comes every Friday to wash and clean our ‘heder madreigot’ the stairwell of our six-unit apartment building in Abu Tor. I did notice that he was dressed haredi-style, sporting a moderate black beard and dressed in a shirt with black trousers, matching shoes and large black velvet yarmulke.
I had been living in this building for over five years without giving the man a second thought. My Vaad (committee) dues were paid in a timely manner, and I assumed the one-man “Vaad”, whose tenure preceded my arrival on the scene, was paying the man a fair wage and on time. After all, the Torah demands that a day laborer be paid within the day, and our one-man Vaad was not only Orthodox but the gabbai of the neighborhood shul.
My first genuine encounter with the weekly janitor occurred one Friday afternoon when I heard someone crying bitterly in the stairwell. Emerging from my apartment I discovered that it was he. Our janitor was disconsolate. Apparently, the “Vaad” had withheld his pay that week as punishment for his failing to leave ten shekels in change the previous Friday.
As I then discovered, our building was paying the man 90 shekels for his backbreaking labor. For this, he had to travel to Abu Tor from who knows where. And he was being punished for not having been able to make change.
Our janitor was crying bitter tears because he did not have money to buy food for his family for Shabbat.
All the residents of the building knew that our one-man “Vaad” was a nasty character – an heir to a north American fortune, occupying an entire floor, and someone who never seemed to have had – or needed – a job. We all accepted his Vaad-ship out of our own laziness, and because he had lived longest in the building. No one could recall a time when he had not been the “Vaad”
Needless to say, I fronted the janitor’s salary and assured him there would be no repeat of this event.
Together with the other residents of the building we resolved to replace the “Vaad” immediately and to approve a modest raise, one that would not require our man to leave a ten shekel coin in the electricity closet.
Now, I have long heard about a handful of serious Torah scholars who work as sanitation men for the Jerusalem Municipality. They chose this work as the hours are early and relatively short while the pay is reasonable. After hauling the public’s trash for six hours these scholars would wash up and then go to their yeshivot to spend the rest of the day, long into the night, steeped in Torah. These were men who took Maimonides seriously when he said it is forbidden to earn one’s keep through Torah, and those who do “end up embezzling the public” – prescient words indeed.
Occasionally I could spy one of these rare human beings, hanging onto the tailgate of a moving garbage truck along with his fellow garbage men, many of them Arabs. But I never was able to get up close and personal. Besides what could I say to someone like that, other than ask him for a blessing?
Of course, all of these special people were Sefardi. Having grown up among Ashkenazi haredim, I could not imagine there ever being a full-time Ashkenazi Torah scholar earning his keep by rolling out green dumpsters and feeding their contents into the maw of a noisy and odoriferous truck.
Yet it never occurred to me to make any connection between our building’s janitor and those legendary garbage men. Although I should have.
By now I have been living in this building for ten years. Last week the janitor called to let me know that he was leaving an invitation for me to his daughter’s wedding, and I thanked him.
The wedding invitation informed of an event that would take place in a very modest hall, buried somewhere in the industrial part of Jerusalem. It was signed by both sets of parents. The title preceding the names of each of the fathers was “Harav”.