It 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 other possessions.
There 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, in one 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.
In 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 me. I had heard enough about what goes on in “shelters”
and decided not to ask for details.
“Are 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.
The 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 stranger.
As 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.
Shelly 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.
I 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.
There 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.”
I 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 her day.