I was waiting for the subway coming down from Columbia down to my house. I had just finished some rockin’ meetings, people were really excited about H2H and inspired how we were gonna transform the Jewish community, and change the world! When the subway arrived, I followed some people onto the car, absorbed in some emails I was writing on my ‘droid. But even distracted, I could smell the overwhelming stench on the car within moments – and looked up to see an empty subway car. Except for one guy, sitting in what must have been, judging by the smell, his own wastes. Not thinking too much, I followed the group in front of me as they crossed into the adjacent car, where we all breathed in some fresh air.
I looked back into the car and saw that guy sitting there by himself – ragged clothes, overgrown beard, clearly homeless with some bags at his side. And I was just overcome by how embarrassed he must feel. I mean, all homeless people must feel embarrassed and ignored – but to have an entire subway car run away from you is pretty low. Okay, fine, it was a bad smell – but the humiliation that guy must have felt probably stank even more. So at the next stop I got out, walked back into the first car, and sat down.
I didn’t sit next to him, I didn’t talk to him, and I don’t know if he even saw me – I just sat there. It was a really incredible train ride – I thought a lot about ideas of humility, and sitting with someone through their shame (“betoch ami anochi yoshevet”), and G-d sitting with us through our sins, and the weight of our actions and inactions. Especially because I spend all my time these days meeting with people and telling them how they should be more loving and welcoming and understanding of people – and here I was finally with a chance to do something along these lines myself. Some people would get on at each stop, stand there for a few minutes, or a stop, and then move to another car. One woman said to me, when she saw I wasn’t getting up, “You’re stronger than us!” before rushing off the subway car. Now I don’t think my nose wasn’t any less impervious to the stench, I guess I just made myself see through that and sit through it.
Before I got off the train at my stop, I walked over to the guy and asked him if he wanted the coffee cakes I had in my knapsack. “I’d love them,” he said. So I handed them to him, and I got off the train. That was it – no fanfare, no standing ovation, no thanks, no public kiddush Hashem. But in a really unexpected way, it definitely inspired me to keep doing what I do.