Rabbi Elizabeth S. Wood

Rabbi Elizabeth S. Wood
Celebrating Havdallah

Friday, October 8, 2010

Practice what you preach

I'm on the NYC MTA (Subway) at least 5-6 days a week. And while I sit there for anywhere from 30-50 minutes, I watch the people around me. I might pretend to do work, or be engrossed in my music, but really I can't help watch the different kinds of people that occupy the same space as me for a particular length of time. I will never see the majority of them again, most likely, but I am so fascinated by having a glimpse into their lives for just a few moments. Some of them are joyous, beautiful, and content. Others are sad, worn, and even deflated. Of the 8 million stories...I'm getting a glimpse of them every day.

There are rules associated with the subway: You don't look at anyone else. You don't talk to them unless you know them or have a specific question. You take up as little space as possible so that others might fit in too (esp during rush hour!)If someone is asking for spare change, you dig into your pockets only if it's convenient for you not to move too much. You keep your distance in whatever way you can in a crowded, crammed, small space.

Today I was riding home and was about halfway there when the door opened up and a homeless man walked in. Instantly, the car smelled different. The half a dozen people or so sitting near me (it was an off-peak hour) turned their heads away.
He was dirty. He smelled. He was limping and wearing only one shoe, and having trouble walking, and his clothes were ripped. It was, admittedly, hard to look at him. He kept talking to himself and trying to move through the subway car. Slowly, but surely. I wondered how long it had been since he'd eaten a real meal. Or had a shower. Or proper clothes and a bed. Or even seen a doctor. I couldn't help but watch the others around me, partially frightened, but also wanting to just ignore him or make him go away. It made me angry, hurt and very sad.

When we got to the next station everyone but me and two other people left the car. I saw most of them go into the subway cars next to us, just to get away from him - this man who was not disturbing or causing harm to anyone. Eventually he managed to sit down and occupy some precious space.

As the train pulled into my station I got up, fished into my pockets, and took out whatever I had. He wasn't asking for anything, and I wasn't sure what he would do, but I gave it to him anyway. He needed it much more than I did. And when I handed it to him, he didn't say anything - but he looked me in the eyes and smiled. His eyes expressed his gratitude, and that was more than I needed.

Every day I think about what it means to be a religious leader. How do I help others? How do I inspire others to live Jewish lives of fulfillment and purpose? How do I make this world a better place? It starts from within. It means less talking and more doing, sometimes. It means having the courage to know what's right in a situation. And we all have the ability to make changes in our world every day.

This Shabbat, as I know the comfort of friends and family, and food, and shelter, and blessings, I will think of his eyes and his smile...I pray that he may know a blessing or two in his life as well.

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