As with most Jewish educators, Sunday mornings are generally not spent with the paper, coffee, and a lovely brunch with friends. We are up early, sometimes ridiculously early, to make Jews. We are teaching holidays, hearing Hebrew, and this time of the year, singing the “Four Questions” over and over again. (The fall variation is the repeated singing of the Hanukah candlelighting blessings.) We are participating in the sacred act of trasmitting our heritage. It is our routine, which makes us love that holiday or summer Sunday off all the more special.
Last Sunday morning, with the onset of Daylight Saving Time, I was especially tired and decided to splurge on a taxi. Really, it was not so much of a splurge. While I wouldn’t do it everyday the $16 didn’t make a difference to my overall budget, although it was an indulgence to not schlep uptown on the bus and the train at 7:45 am. I quickly found a taxi and my only irritation was the annoying noise of the t.v. in the back seat which blocked the driver’s radio playing NPR. (I am still amazed that we have television in cabs.) All in all, I did not think much of this luxury.
As we journeyed uptown, the driver stopped at a red light. We both groaned as we saw a homeless person, dress in rags, with lots of hair in various states of disarray, tearing apart a garbage pail in front of a pizza parlor on the corner. I was really angry. What a mess he was making, throwing boxes and other garbage around. For what? A bottle or can to redeem? Could the nickel really be worthy mucking up our streets? But then he found what he was looking for, a crust of pizza, which he promptly put in his mouth and ate. The man was so hungry that he ate from the garbage!
A lifelong New Yorker, I remember the New York City of the 1970s. It was not so safe to walk the streets and the homeless were all over the place, sleeping on subway grates to keep warm in the winter. It was not unusual to see homeless people panhandling, trying to wash your windsheilds, and doing all sorts of unseemly things on the city streets. But then New York City became bright and shiny. Disney came to Times Square along with Starbucks, the Gap, and the mallification of New York. We became America, the economy improved, new skyscrappers went up, and New York City flourished. But times seem to have changed again.
In a little over a week, we will sit will our friends and family, point at the matzah and say:
Ha Lachma Anya
This is the bread of afliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.
Let all who are hungry come and eat.
Let all who are in need, come and share.
In fact, I was on my way to teach these very words when I saw this man eat from the garbage pail, not by choice, but by necessity. (No, I do not know his story, but I feel fairly sure that he is not eating dirty pizza crusts by choice.) I told the children the story of Berel and Schmerel. You might have heard of them by different names. Berel and Schmerel were so downtrodden by slavery that they were unable to look up and see the light of freedom. So when they went were redeemed from slavery, all they saw was sand. When they walked through the Sea of Reeds, all they saw was mud. And when they entered the Promised Land, they did not see milk and honey. All they saw sand and dirt. It all seemed the same to them so they turned around and went back to Mitzrayim, to the narrow place, the land where they were enslaved.
As I looked at my 5th graders, with their iPhones in their back packs, I reminded them that their imperative was to look up and see the world around them as it is and to make a difference. No, I was not suggesting that we open our doors to Elijah and invite the homeless in the streets to our seders. But there is much we can do. We can support the hungry funding organizations like Mazon and Dorot. We can support our local food pantries and soup kitchens with our dollars and our hands. And we can have an extra protein bar or piece of fruit in our pocket to share with the hungry.
Yes, at our seders we point at the matzah and say “this is the bread of affliction.” This is one or two nights a year for most of us. For some, it is every night of the year.