Purim, Pesach, Pico Blvd, and Invisible People

As director of the career development and placement office for the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS), Yeshiva University’s rabbinical school, I help rabbis find positions and congregations find rabbis. My work brings me to different locations around the United States and beyond to engage with congregations looking for a spiritual leader who will best match their community’s needs.

My work puts me in unfamiliar settings often enough that I’ve become used to looking at other people’s situations as an outsider.

Recently, while visiting my son and his family in Los Angeles, I found myself fascinated by what I saw as we walked on Pico Boulevard. Amidst the Kosher eateries and stores and high-end and costly homes in one of the more exclusive neighborhoods in the country with a booming observant community, I saw many visibly poor people languishing on street corners, sitting at bus stops, or pushing their worldly possessions in shopping carts along the street.

The indigent walked by us without stirring any response, as if they were not there. Very few people interacted with them. Near our favorite yogurt store, I saw a man in filthy clothes and long hair carrying a guitar on his back walking through the parking lot. I took out a couple of dollars and gave them to him along with a few words of greeting. His words in response stung me: “Thank you for noticing me. Have a good Shabbos.”

The scene on Pico, which saddened me a lot, reminded me of a Halacha in the Shulchan Aruch (Hilchos Krias Shema, 58:1): you cannot daven in the morning until you can “recognize your fellow” from a few feet away. A respected Rav explained this law by stating that if you can’t see a friend to greet him with basic dignity while he is standing nearby, then you’re not yet in the frame of mind to recognize HaShem, the King of the world, with the proper respect.

I believe that our obligation, as Jews, is to elevate the common humanity and decency in ALL people. We must acknowledge the poor among us as people by greeting them, by wishing them well and by sharing whatever we can with a warm spirit and a smile.

We stand right now between two pillars of the Jewish calendar, Purim and Pesach, which frame our perspective of springtime and color our outlook on the entire year. One thing these holidays share is that each includes an explicit mitzvah to attend to the poor: Matanot L’evyonim on Purim, Maot Chittim on Pesach. And our Seders only start after we make a public call to the poor: “Kol Dichfin YeiTay V’YeiChol/Let all who are hungry come in and eat (with us).”

I suggest that this call is not simply a rhetorical statement but a call to our better selves. Yes, we each have wallets and purses of different sizes, yet there is one thing we all have and can share with those less fortunate: a warm greeting, a genuine smile and an affirmation that they, too, matter.

About the Author
Rabbi Ronald L. Schwarzberg has served as the Director of the Morris and Gertrude Bienenfeld Department of Jewish Career Development and Placement, a division of Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future (CJF) since 2005. He has placed hundreds of RIETS and RCA rabbis in their positions and helped them with their contracts and many other issues rabbis face in the active rabbinate. He is a graduate of Yeshiva University's Yeshiva College and Ferkauf School of Psychology, received his ordination from YU's affiliated Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS).
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