In his classic Yiddish story, "If Not Higher," the writer I.L. Peretz writes about the Rebbe of Nemirov who travels the countryside during the Days of Awe while his community recites the Slichot prayers in penitence in preparation for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. He disguises himself to look like a simple peasant and in his anonymity, he does good deeds for the poor while the community sleeps in during the quiet hours before the daily morning prayers--a kind of saintly substitution and, if you will, a more verifiable form of penance in a season when actions surely count for something--maybe even more than mere words of prayer.
I thought of this story--l'havdil!--yesterday when I pulled myself out of bed from a late night of Shavuot study, threw a baseball cap on my head, and came over to Shul to pick up several hundred meals for our daily delivery to families at the Red Hook Initiative and a housing project on Neptune Avenue in Coney Island--two of the several communities we have been helping to feed since Sandy.
The recipients of the meals were predominantly African American and Latino; native born and immigrants; and all were poor. Inside of the Red Hook Initiative, the center was busy with clients learning English, getting job training and resume writing skills, and facing one another in counseling and health education sessions. There was a palpable hunger for advancement in the room and quick expressions of appreciation for the food delivery. So quick as to be barely noticed.
That's when I thought of the Peretz story. Along with my driving partner, we were just two guys dropping off food. Others were hungry and we had more food to deliver. What did the Sages say? The reward of a mitzvah is another mitzvah. Indeed.
On the way out to Coney Island, I played the story in my mind. I remembered the wood fire the rabbi chops and lights for the poor and the peasant clothes he wore. I had forgotten the scornful Litvak who is converted to the rabbi's discipleship in watching his teacher's humble service. Driving down Neptune Avenue, I remembered those first days after Sandy: cars overturned; banks of sand piled above homes; soaked and frigid devastation. A kind of apocalyptic hopelessness cast against the absurd carnivalesque shoreline.
Half a year later most yards are clean. Mold still clings to the brick houses but a beginning, however halting, takes steps into spring and summer.
At the housing project, men and women, some leaning against walkers, others in wheelchairs and blankets, wait patiently for the meal to begin. Wordlessly the other anonymous public servants take the food from us and nod in tired recognition of the ongoing, terrible, humbling and rewarding fact of it all.
CBE's Sandy Relief recently changed its name to CBE Feeds--a solemn recognition that we will continue to feed our neighbors in need as an expression of our core values as a community. New York Cares sends of generous-hearted volunteers each day; CBE members and Brooklyn neighbors rise early Monday through Friday and fill our kitchen for three hours in a devotion that is among the most prayerful activity I have ever encountered as a rabbi. Yesterday, while carrying boxfuls of food to the car I passed our chapel where from within I heard offerings of Torah, of first fruits, of a counting out of weeks in humble service to God. Revelations from a mountainous altar at Sinai mingled perfectly with revelations from the altar of kitchen counter. Who would dare say one is more pure than the other? That one such offering ascends higher than the other?
And on Sunday evening, in partnership with CAMBA, we open our Homeless Shelter which will run from May 19-June 27. We have a few more slots, you know. You can sign up here.
At the end of the Peretz story, the skeptical Litvak becomes a follower of the Rebbe. Where does the great rabbi go each morning when he disappears during prayer time? Heaven! The Litvak knows the greater truth that in doing good deeds for the most humble among us, that we have the opportunity to do go where "heaven" asks us to go--"if not higher."
In the face of the other we have an opportunity to transcend ourselves and bring a greater sense of justice and kindness to the world.
I write these words as Shavuot comes to a close with a profound sense of gratitude to all those in greater Brooklyn community who have understood and incorporated into their daily offerings the care and feeding of our most humble neighbors. May we continue to travel there--if not higher--together.