Jewish Thought

Perspective

I often drive to the ocean to sit and meditate, to brood, to seek inspiration or find healing. Everyone has an individual place where he or she can seek quietude. For some people it’s the mountains that stir them, making them breathless with awe, and for others it’s the dense forests where they can lose themselves and find transcendence, but for me it has always been first and foremost the ocean where I’ve found serenity, harmony with the universe, a sense of G-d’s greater scheme. It’s the place where my lagging spirits are almost always restored. On this particular day, I had come to brood.  I had just asked my husband for a small sum of money for groceries, and he had shrugged (whether it was in indifference, defeat or despair I could not tell) and told me there was none. I had just deposited money into our joint account that I had made from a recent deal and I was shocked to learn that it was already gone. My husband has been unemployed for some time, and while my heart perpetually aches for his pain and misery, occasionally my stores of sympathy get depleted. Sometimes I get angry that he isn’t trying hard enough to find something new. This was one of those days. So I was sitting on a bench, drenched in self-pity, brooding about life’s unfairness, when out of the corner of my eye, I saw a homeless man with a long, scraggly white beard scavenging through the large garbage cans scattered throughout the plaza that abuts the sea.

torah portion

There was still a nip in the air and everyone else was tightly bundled up in jackets and scarves, but he wore only an undershirt and summer shorts several sizes too large engulfing his emaciated frame. A battered suitcase—which probably held all of his earthly possessions— stood nearby.  I felt pained by his plight and though I tried to pull my eyes away from his labors and give him privacy and dignity, I could not help as they returned involuntarily to record the pathetic scene. I watched as he pulled out a large bag of potato chips from one of the trash bins, practically tore at it and devoured its contents in a few quick gulps. He seemed ravished. Then I watched, astonished, as he stopped eating, cocked his head in the direction of the flocks of pigeons and sea gulls assembled on the plaza, walked to where they were clustered, and scattered the rest of the potato chips on the sidewalk in front of them.  I could not believe what I saw. The crumbs glinted on the sidewalk like shards of glass. I was inexpressibly moved and wanted to affirm what he had done, so I called out to him, “That was extremely kind and generous of you…to share your bounty with the birds.” “Sharing is heaven,” he proclaimed with a luminous grin that revealed all his missing teeth. “Not sharing is hell.” I stared at him, stunned.  “May God bless you,” I said effusively. “God bless you.” “Oh, He has, ma’am,” he said with fervor and a vigorous shake of his head for emphasis.  “He has.” Then he picked up the handle of his battered suitcase and started walking rapidly, zigzagging across the walkway as he quickly checked out each trash can, sifted through the detritus as if he were panning for gold, and then continued on his way. But if anyone had found treasure that day, it was I. I felt the 15 dollars I had found in my jacket burning a hole in my pocket.

 That morning, I had been bitter that things were so tight in my home; but that man had nothing. So I tried to race after his retreating figure, but he was surprisingly swift and already several hundred yards away from where he had originally stood. Despite his advanced age and life circumstances, he was unusually limber. I, who had lived a relatively pampered life with its rich diet and sedentary lifestyle, was far less agile. I continued streaking after him, beginning to pant with my efforts to overtake him. People must have thought it strange to see a respectable-looking middle-aged woman frantically pursuing a member of what many of us with some measure of scorn, revulsion or even pity, but certainly with complete misunderstanding, mislabel as the “underclass.” “Sir! Sir!” I yelled when I was finally a few feet away. I pulled out my 15 dollars.  “Can I treat you to your next meal?” His eyes glowed and his face seemed almost incandescent.  “Yes, you can!” he smiled beatifically, accepting as easily as he had given. “Thank you very much.  I really appreciate it.” And then, he picked up the handle of his suitcase again and continued his rapid pace to nowhere and no one, a tiny speck quickly receding into the distance, a man who had just illumined my life for a brief moment in eternity.

As I turned around to head back to the parking lot, I looked at the people huddled in conversation, jabbing at their iPhones, staring blankly at the sea.  They hadn’t even known that a special man had been in their midst, and I felt myself blessed for all that I had seen and heard. My consciousness shifted, and my bitterness melted away.  That night, a man called my husband to tell him that he had owed him a fairly large sum of money for many years, and was planning to return it this week.  Somehow I felt the intersection of these two events was not an accident, but my husband says I am merely being fanciful. But if you ask me, I think I met Elijah the Prophet that day wearing the disguise of a homeless man, and because I was blessed to see beneath his tatters, I received a life lesson that will remain with me forever. I also believe that when I gave him all the money I had, the Gates of Heaven were pried open …but it was by this man’s sledgehammer, not mine.

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