Elliott Shevin wrote up an incident that occurred at our synagogue a few years ago, when he was shul president. His account was never published. It occurs to me that, as we prepare for the Days of Awe this year, we should know this story.
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The Fast I Desire
Apparently, Dennis understood one thing about Judaism: on a Saturday morning, a building with Hebrew writing on the outside would likely be occupied. Perhaps he could find help here.
So the hour just before the service on Yom Kippur morning found him standing in the space our small congregation rented from a local school. A middle-aged black man, he was dressed casually: a San Francisco Forty-Niners jacket, a baseball cap, slacks. Nothing unusual, but a sharp contrast to our suits and ties.
It was early, and only Moshe and I were there. As Moshe was nearer, Dennis addressed him: “Are you the rabbi?”
“No, the rabbi isn’t here.”
“Perhaps I can help,” I volunteered.
With no other option, our visitor accepted, on the condition that we speak in private. We found a room and a pair of chairs, we exchanged introductions, and he shared his story.
He was a veteran, he explained. He had served in various postings in Central America in the mid-1980s.
Perhaps he’d seen combat there, as he had said he suffered from PTSD. Servicemen and women who had risked the last full measure of devotion, only to leave the military even less prepared for civilian life than when they had entered, had been no more than anecdotes before. Now one of them sat before me.
His immediate concern was keeping a roof over his head, and those of his wife and two daughters. They had been living in Battle Creek—had I heard of that place?—but recently moved to Detroit. They’d spent a month in a motel room on the charity of the owner, but that arrangement had ended. They now occupied an apartment about three miles to the south.
He worked odd jobs to make ends meet, as his full pension from the VA didn’t suffice. The dirt under his fingernails, he said, came from a recent stint cleaning a driveway.
He seemed to perceive his presence as incongruous, and this weighed upon him. Assurances and justifications formed the bulk of his monologue. He repeatedly apologized for his appearance, spoke of his unease at being a black man in a white neighborhood (unaware of the half-dozen black households just a block away), reassured me that his missing upper incisor had been pulled by a dentist and not lost in a fight. Indeed, the only reason one might doubt his sincerity was his continuous assertions of it.
What he sought was obvious, but as he never mentioned it explicitly and spoke almost nonstop, he left no opening to explain why, on this particular morning, an observant Jewish congregation wouldn’t be able to help him.
Before long our elder rabbi, who could hardly miss the odd sight of this stranger engaging his synagogue president, joined us. Dennis redirected his appeal to him, eventually explaining his need: a small sum to make the rent on the apartment. “I get paid in a couple of days. I can come back on Tuesday and pay you back…” and he named a figure half again as large as what he was asking.
“You needn’t do that. And we do want to help you,” explained the rabbi. “But—and you may have a hard time believing this—this is a holiday for us, and none of us is carrying any money.” He turned his empty pocket inside-out to emphasize the point.
“Perhaps some of the people who come later…?”
“No, they won’t have any money either.”
“Do you have any at home? We could ride to your house….”
“No, we don’t ride today.”
We passed a while in silent thought before I volunteered, “If you’ll excuse us, perhaps we can think of something.” The rabbi and I stepped into the hallway, agreed on a plan, and returned to our visitor.
“It happens that there is some money on the premises. Please follow me.”
I led him to the cabinet that holds our prayer books and indicated a silver-plated container. “That is our charity box. I can’t handle it myself, but you’re welcome to whatever is inside.”
He emptied the box and asked if we would count the contents. “You’ll have to do that for yourself,” I explained. By this time, our younger rabbi had appeared. We found a room where the tally showed that Dennis was now just ten dollars shy of his goal. With thanks, he prepared to walk the three miles to the apartment, perhaps to close the shortfall along the way.
By now it was time for prayers to begin. On holidays, by rabbinic ordinance, we don’t conduct business transactions, leading our younger rabbi to ponder, “I’m not sure we did the right thing.”
On this morning, as on every Yom Kippur, the prophetic reading from Isaiah provided an answer:
Is such the fast I desire,
A day for men to starve their bodies?
Is it bowing the head like a bulrush
And lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Do you call that a fast,
A day when the Lord is favorable?
No, this is the fast I desire:
To unlock fetters of wickedness,
And untie the cords of the yoke
To let the oppressed go free;
To break off every yoke.
It is to share your bread with the hungry,
And to take the wretched poor into your home.
Today we’d been tested. Would we merely starve our bodies and bow our heads? Or would we also share our bread and house the homeless?
Isaiah would say we passed.