A quick trip into the city this afternoon had me heading over to the Puck Building in order to meet with the Jewish student association at the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University. The idea was a New Year reception and conversation and I had the pleasure of framing a discussion of how these young, future Jewish professionals could bridge their desire to live within a serious Jewish framework while also serving the broader public in civil service. One young man spoke very convincingly about growing up in California and being continually reminded about the obligation to honor commitments to social action and social justice by his rabbi, who recently retired. Another spoke about being the child of generations of Baghdadi Jews who experienced discrimination in Israel by Ashkenazi authorities and how it sensitized him to the plight of disenfranchised minorities--Jewish and Arab--and resulted in his desire to serve others. Still another spoke movingly about being the grandchild of Holocaust survivors and being motivated to work harder at making sure that Jewish service included Jewish remembrance. The number of survivors left living in our world diminishes on a daily basis--how we remember them is essential to the preservation of our history.
Anyway, I found myself listening to their stories, drawn to their unique and individual paths into Jewish service while also fully cognizant of how their decisions to serve were shaped as much by others forming them as they formed themselves. Our particular journeys rely upon a formative series of developments brought about by others impacting us.
I was reminded of a sight I beheld walking along East 4th Street before heading down Lafayette toward the Puck Building: a homeless man, asleep beneath scaffolding, his ass half-exposed, and his prosthetic limbs neatly stacked against the wall of the building in whose shadow he sought shelter. Deep in sleep at 5 in the evening, he didn't seem to notice a working city heading to home or yoga or the gym or a bar or wherever it is that one goes to relax at the end of a day. Not to be overly pedantic but I seemed to be the only one who noticed him and so stopped to see if he had a cup in which to share some money or a box to place food or a merely a set of eyes, bound to a soul, with which to make a connection, man to man. Alas, he dreamed; and I stared; and others walked past, lost in their own world, lost in the world.
"Because on your fast day you see to your business and oppress all your laborers!" says Isaiah in the stirring and challenging Haftarah for Yom Kippur morning. "This is the fast I desire: to unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe them, and do not ignore your own flesh."
But ignorance reigned. Person after person passed our man in the street, their own noses deeply implanted in digital denial devices. What ignominious behavior! At the very least: look; observe; take note! The neutral non-noticing was too much to bear.
As I walked, and looked, I noticed as well the absurd appearance of a young woman who nearly ran into me, her own face deeply embedded in her electro-connector. She wore bright red leather shoes and she strode past our uprooted friend in blithely confident shoey showiness. I wished I had a camera at that moment, to capture the devastatingly inhuman insensitivity to the legless man.
"Do not ignore your own flesh."
Even noticing can be messianic: "Then shall your light burst through like the dawn and your healing will spring up quickly." Healing--personal and national--will result from a sensitivity to the plight of the disadvantaged. Our fate is linked to others we do not know; our own fortunate reality is dependent upon the misfortune of our neighbor. Simple, troubling, and obligating, as that.
I looked up after musing these thoughts to the graduate students and realized I was preaching a Yom Kippur sermon and here it was, not yet Yom Kippur. Pedant! Blabbermouth! Still, Isaiah is right. He put it one way for his generation. I, in my suited gentility, paraphrased him, reserving his words for own own food-deprived and afflicted souls this coming Saturday: Our particular journeys rely upon a formative series of developments brought about by others impacting us. Or, as the brother put it: "Do not ignore your own flesh."
Not bliss. Torment. Ignorance is torment.
If anyone should know that, it's those who choose "public service." And those who sleep in the street, blissfully ignorant, for a few brief moments, of their own temporary bliss. "What you don't know won't kill you." But what about what you do know? And don't rectify? Or don't get rectified? How do they live, and you live, and we live?