4 November 2011
7 Cheshvan 5772
This Wednesday’s Limud Clali program put a face (actually, two faces) on homelessness as we welcomed three guests from the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH). Two of the speakers were formerly homeless and shared their powerful, personal stories. The third, a volunteer for NCH, moderated the conversation and helped educate us about the myths and realities of homelessness and its causes, as well as about what we can do to help.
At the end of the presentation there were a few minutes for questions and answers. One member of our community asked, “What do you recommend we do if we encounter a homeless person on the street? Should we give them money?” Interestingly, our formerly homeless guests both recommended not giving money but rather buying them food or something else they need. And then a student asked a question that I found particularly meaningful.
“Can you share with us how you felt when you were homeless on the street and would see people walking by you?” she asked. I was struck by the student’s capacity and desire for empathy, to understand the experience of these “others”. She seemed to understand that no matter how much we discuss texts, laws, or ethical standards for how we should treat people, what most impacts our actions are empathy and compassion, our abilities to fully see the other, and our awareness of how our choices and actions affect others.
This is the starting place for tikkun olam, the urge to repair our broken world. And, according to one midrash (Genesis Rabbah 39:1), it was these capacities to see and feel our broken world, especially, perhaps, when others could not or would not, that caused God to reach out to Avram (before his name changed to Avraham) for the first time in this week’s parsha, Lech Lecha. According to the well-known parable, Avram is compared to a person who was walking and saw a castle or tower burning but could not see its owner. The person called out, “Is there no master/owner in charge of this castle?” Just then, the owner of the castle peeked out from it and said, “I am the owner.” So, too, the Midrash teaches us, did Avram look at our world and ask, “Is there no ruler of this world?” This prompted God to call out to him, “lech lecha – Go forth . . .”
There are many ways to interpret what Avram saw or came to understand and why this was the trigger for God choosing him. One reading speaks directly to the habits of heart that Gann and this Wednesday’s homelessness program, in particular, seek to cultivate in our students. Avram saw the world after the flood and the generation of the Tower of Babel. Presumably, he recognized both the corruption and the suffering of human beings. His question in this midrash not only illustrates his monotheism, for it is aimed at the one “Ruler of the world,” but also, more importantly, his question (perhaps, foreshadowing his exchange with God before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah a few chapters later) identifies him as a person who cares about God’s world and about justice, and who, therefore, is ready to be a partner for God in the ongoing creation and reparation of this world. None of this would have been possible if Avram had not taken the time to see the “burning castle,” to feel concern, and to call out.
To me, our student’s question, like Avram’s, emerged from her capacities to see and feel, and she expressed her desire to understand even more deeply the experience of the less fortunate and the brokenness of her world. In my view, her very question was a step toward restoring their dignity and an act of tikkun olam.
May we be reminded and inspired by these examples to pay attention to our world and the people in it, for we all have a role to play in repairing it.
Rabbi Marc Baker