Okay, so it’s still not a contest, but I did give a kippah to some guy today who asked me for one. But wait ’til you hear the rest of this story…
I was on my way out of Hillel after some post-Shabbat singing when I saw this man walking in my direction. This man was probably in his 40’s and had a long, fraying coat and overgrown hair and facial hair – looking like a typical homeless person. He kind of glanced at me and then he kind of asked me whether there were services going on now. I say “kind of” because he couldn’t really look straight at me, nor was he speaking so clearly. I told him that services had actually just finished, as the Sabbath had just ended and that everyone had left. As I continued walking towards my dorm, he walked along with me and so we started talking – I asked him his name, where he’s from, etc. After he responded with cryptic and some non-nonsensical answers, I realized that besides for (probably) being homeless, he also had some serious psychological/mental problems.
As I arrived at my dorm and was about to leave him to go into the building, I realized that this guy probably needed some help, if only just a little food, of which there was plenty extra in Hillel. So I decided to ask him whether he’d want to come to Hillel with me and get some food. He answered, hesitantly, that that would be great but that he didn’t want to bother me, but he could use some food and he needed to wash his hands, and was I sure it was okay, and he has some relatives who live in Philadelphia, and am I related to some random family who live in Delaware, and that guy over there looks like Sharon, and that person over there was looking at him strangely … That was pretty much what it was like to talk to him – whenever he would start talking, he would go off on random tangents, relating to me some story of his life or some connection he has with something that he could only just barely remember. It turns out that he had gone to Dartmouth and got a degree in religion, then went to Law School, but sometime after that everything get screwed up.
In short, I brought him to Hillel, and he stayed outside (they wouldn’t let him in because he didn’t have any ID – which might have been the right decision) while I brought him down most of the leftover food from seudat shlishit. It was at this point that he asked me for a kippah, which I gladly gave to him. Then he asked for some water so he could wash his hands, which he said he hadn’t done in a while. So I had someone else walking by bring us some water and soap and he washed his hands thoroughly, during which he started saying the b’racha “al netilat yadayim”. Over the course of his stories, it emerged that his parents were killed in a car-accident when he was 10 (for which he unreasonably saw himself as partially responsible) and he was raised by his uncle. Last year – in fact, almost exactly a year ago, that uncle died and now he wanted to say kaddish for his uncle’s yahrzeit. So, in order to let him do that, I gathered 10 guys who were around or nearby and this guy and me said kaddish together, word-for-word. Meanwhile, the other 8 guys were giving me these weird looks, as in ‘who is this crazy, homeless guy who you’re talking to?’, but I told them I’d explain it all later.
In the end, we ended up talking for over an hour-and-a-half, joined by a friend of mine for the last half. It was really sad to hear this man’s story and all the misfortunes that seemed to have befallen him. But in the end, as we were parting ways , he told me that he had a particularly unfortunate and terrible past few years but that it was nice to talk to someone and meet a new friend. And he was actually very grateful and appreciative that I organized a minyan for him to say kaddish for his uncle. I even gave him my phone number (was that a mistake?) and he texted me saying “This iz todah”. For all of the intensity and craziness of the discussions and entire experience, it was surely a night to remember. Especially as we go into the Days of Awe, where we come before God with “תפלה לעני…”, “prayer of the poor person” (Tehillim 102:1) – I mean, before an Infinite Being, we must surely appear crazed, poor, physically and spiritually homeless and going through some rough times. We pray to God that, in His infinite kindness, He should except us as such, accept us and our prayers with an open hand and an open ear, and to be a Friend to us (ידידיה). There is no better way to appreciate the power of that framework than to go and see what it is like to speak to someone who is lost in their distress, and to lend a hand to someone looking for some help.
May God only continue to deal mercifully with us, and may we do the same in our own ways in our own lives.