I want to tell you about a man I’ll call Jack. Jack was a man who slept under the 405 underpass that I cross on my walk to synagogue every Shabbat. For a long time, I didn’t really see him. He was tucked away in the bushes next to the on-ramp. But that’s not what kept me from seeing him. Angelenos like Jack who sleep among the concrete and refuse are, to most in our city, nothing more than landscape. Our own hustle and bustle has caused a moral blindness that prevents us from taking notice of them. The voice of our ethical exhaustion tells us that these folks are simply the price we pay for living in a city. And so we don’t see them.
I didn’t see Jack until he waved at me one Shabbat morning and I waved back. This became a weekly ritual. Then, one Shabbat, while walking to synagogue, I stopped and talked with Jack. Sitting there next to the 405, I found out that Jack is a veteran. He served our country overseas and experienced the carnage of war. When Jack came home, he couldn’t put the shards of his life together. To cope with his trauma, Jack fell into the vicious cycle of pain, addiction and self-abuse that landed him there next to the freeway. There we were together, face to face, me in my suit and he in ragged old clothes. And for the first time, I really saw this man. I saw inside him, his pain, his shame and, most importantly, his humanity.
After shul, I gathered together some food, a bottle of water and some materials with information on getting help from a social service agency. But when I arrived at the underpass, he was gone. At first I thought he had moved on. But later I learned from a police officer that Jack had been arrested for sleeping beneath the underpass.
This bothered me a great deal and it still bothers me. As a family man it bothers me. As an American it bothers me. As a veteran it bothers me. But most importantly, as a Jew it bothers me.
The author Alice Hoffman said, “Once you know some things, you can’t unknow them. It’s a burden that can never be given away.” That’s especially true of people who, having fallen on hard times, can’t seem to pick up those shattered pieces of their lives.
There are nearly 60,000 people in Los Angeles who sleep on the streets every night. Twenty percent of all homeless are veterans like Jack. And the outlook for their future is not bright. Now that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are ending, experts are anticipating a “reverse surge” of veterans. They predict that 31,000 veterans will become homeless in Los Angeles in the next two years. The statistics are staggering and shameful.
This great country has brought prosperity to so many. If we can build a society that lets a man take a small step on the moon, place Old Glory on the Sea of Tranquility and call that a victory for humanity, why can’t we build a country that lets every family take a small step across the threshold of a home?
As Jews, there can be no argument that since our people left the dark ghettos of Europe and the sun-baked streets of Tehran we’ve made it. We can attend any university, belong to any club and do business with any person we like. The mayors of the three largest cities in America are Jewish. Three of the most powerful elected officials in Los Angeles are Jewish. We’ve made it.
But in the eyes of our tradition, we haven’t made it. Not yet.
When Moses dreamed of a future for our people, he envisioned us settled in a land flowing with milk and honey. Yet, at the pinnacle of our flourishing, the Torah teaches that we stand before the priest and the congregation in Jerusalem, holding the bounty of our harvests, affirming our identity as Jews. At that moment, when we can say, “We’ve made it,” the Torah instructs us to say, “My father was a homeless Aramean who went down to Egypt with meager numbers and resided there … when we cried out to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, the Lord heard our cry and freed us from Egypt.”
Moses’ vision for our personal prosperity is to truly enjoy the fruits of our labor, but not to make material gains our identity. We are not only our wealth. Our lives began in a much earlier time, an ancient time, thousands of years ago, back to Jacob, back to Abraham, who left their homes, as wandering homeless men. Our Torah teaches us that in all our settledness, in all our wealth, in all our power, in all our privilege, there is still, deep inside each one of our chests, beating with the steady thumping of time, a homeless heart.
We are Adam and Eve, who were exiled from their home. We are Noah and his family, who had to make a home aboard a ship among turbulent seas. We are Abraham, who left his home and wandered in search of the Promised Land. We are Jacob, who left his home to find himself and to build a nation. We are Joseph, thrown into the pit, far away from home. We are Moses, who left his home and found God in the desert. We are the people of Israel, who crossed the sea, wandered the wasteland and were exiled, homeless for thousands of years.
In the soul of every Jew, no matter how much we believe we’ve made it, we have not yet fulfilled the dreams of the prophets unless we remember that homeless hearts beat in our chests.
And in this season, when we are commanded to build the sukkah, a symbol of God’s sheltering presence, can we be deaf to the beating of our hearts? The frailty of our sukkot should remind all of us of those whose homes are as fragile as the sukkah all year long. For once you see these fellow human beings as reflections of the Divine, you cannot stand idly by; your homeless heart must beat in time with theirs.
The time to act is now. Valley Beth Shalom is taking a stand to work with those who want to end homelessness; to teach about this issue through our innovative art gallery and lectures; to work with others like Milken Community High School, New Jewish Community High School; and the Jewish Journal to collect signs from the homeless to build a Homeless Sukkah; and to work with coalitions of other organizations to advocate for a solution to this wrong. Let this New Year be a year when we can find a home for all.
Noah Farkas is associate rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom Synagogue in Encino.