was three years ago, at this time of year, and I was
on my way to the Seder, the Passover celebration that
commemorates the Exodus from Egypt. Walking towards
the hall where the Seder would be held, I saw a woman
sitting on the pavement with her sleeping bag and some
was something terribly incongruous about this.
Here I was, dressed in my holiday finery, preparing to
praise the One who delivered us, in the words of the
hymn, “from slavery to freedom, from sadness to joy,
from darkness to great light”. And right before me,
of the wealthiest cities of the world, was a woman
preparing to sleep on the sidewalk. Unable to simply
ignore her walk by, I greeted her.
the conversation that ensued, I learned that Shelly
was not on welfare, but rather part of the working poor,
earning too much for public assistance but not enough to
pay rent in high-priced Los Angeles. She also did not want
to go to a shelter. It is safer on the streets, she told
I had heard enough about what goes on in “shelters”
and decided not to ask for details.
you hungry? Did you have dinner?” I inquired. Shelly
did not reply.
So I asked more delicately, “If I brought you some
food, would you accept?”
“Yes,” she said. I told her the festive meal
would be served in an hour
and a half, and promised I would return.
holiday meal was fit for a king: eggs, fish, soup and chicken.
I took an
egg and my portion of fish and prepared to go, but I did
not want to go alone.
Night had fallen and it was dark outside now, and Shelly
might not feel safe
with a strange man approaching her. Fortunately, I found
a kindhearted woman
willing to accompany me. Together we set out to feed a hungry
we approached, I explained to my companion that charity
in the Jewish tradition consists of two parts. There is
giving of a physical item, be it food, clothing, money,
etc. And there is giving of the heart—a kind word,
a smile, some encouragement. The prophet Isaiah teaches
us to “slice your bread for the poor”, and also
to “extend your spirit to the poor” (58:7,10).
Charity is an act of compassion, not heartless giving.
sat up startled as we came close, then relaxed when she
recognized me. I crouched and gave her the plate. She told
us she would eat the fish immediately and have the egg for
breakfast. We stayed with her for a bit, and then, sensing
that she desired her privacy, we left.
did many things that evening. I read the story of the Exodus
from Egypt. I ate matzah, the unleavened bread eaten on
Passover. I gave thanks for the redemption from bondage
and oppression. But nothing was as meaningful as those few
minutes with Shelly.
is something powerful about physically handing food to a
fellow human being in need. I was very aware that there
but for the grace of God go I. And there is something deeply
human about opening one’s heart to a stranger, about
extending a few minutes of heartfelt attention to another
person, attention that conveys, “I see you, I see
your humanness. You are not some anonymous homeless. You
have dignity, and there is compassion for you in the world.”
do not know if I will ever see Shelly again. I do hope she
slept better that night. And I hope she woke up a bit happier
the next morning, with an egg to nourish her body and the
memory of human kindness to lift her spirit and brighten