When We Are God’s Witnesses

I am writing this on a bitterly cold day. It was 3 degrees when I left for the gym before sunup, and now, at noontime, it is not noticeably warmer. I cannot stop thinking about those who do not have a warm, comfortable home as their refuge in this kind of adverse weather.

Homeless shelters are permitting people to remain there throughout the day; exposure could be deadly at these temperatures. But soon homeless people will be back on the streets. The Mishnah records that each day as he left the study house, no doubt to return to his own home, Rabbi Nehunya ben Hakaneh would say, “I give thanks for my portion.” I too am grateful. And shouldn’t gratitude propel us to seek the blessings we enjoy for others?

Not long ago, John Stossel of the Fox Business Network, costumed in a fake beard and worn clothing, went out begging on the streets of New York City. He reported: “I just begged for an hour, but I did well. If I did this for an eight-hour day I would’ve made 90 bucks: $23,000 for a year, tax-free.”

The purpose of the segment was sadly not to encourage generosity, but rather brand panhandlers as “scammers” and accuse generous people of being enablers.

In fact, the only identifiable scammer on the streets of New York that day was Stossel, who once made the outrageous claim that beggars make $80,000 a year. He neglected to mention that not only is $23,000 a high estimate based on his one prime-time hour on the street, but it is not possible to live in New York City on $23,000 a year.

I cannot imagine God saying, “They’re just greedy scammers; don’t give them a penny.” Rather, our prayers call God malbish arumim, matir asurim, zokef k’fufim, “the One who clothes the naked, releases the bound, raises the downtrodden.”

Midrash Sifre, commenting on a verse from Isaiah — “You are My witnesses, declares the Lord, and I am God” — expounds that “When you are My witnesses, then I am God, but when you are not My witnesses, then I am, as it were, not God.” We are God’s agents in this world, God’s eyes, ears and hands, as it were.

Recently, I heard someone assert that those who are homeless and hungry are lazy and irresponsible, so why should others take care of them? Midrash Tanhuma recounts that once Rabbi Akiba encountered a man covered with soot who was carryng wood. The man explained that when he had lived, he had committed every imaginable violation of Torah; now he was serving out his punishment in the afterlife. Rabbi Akiba asked if the man had a son. He died leaving a pregnant wife.

After much effort, Rabbi Akiba located the child, saw to his brit milah and taught the lad himself. The first time the boy read from the Torah and recited, “Blessed are You, Lord, Who is blessed forever and ever,” his father was delivered from Gehenna to Eden. Beliefs about the afterworld and divine punishment aside, let us not lose sight of the fact that through Rabbi Akiba’s commitment and hands-on generosity — not Stosselian judgmentalism — the son also was delivered from Gehenna to Eden in this world. Rabbi Akiba saw himself, as we all can, as God’s witness. Do you?

Rabbi Amy Scheinerman is immediate past president of the Baltimore Board of Rabbis and the Jewish hospice chaplain for Howard County.

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