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Another Universe

August 13, 2009 | by Seena Elbaum

An old man, a stranger, and the bonds of kindness.

As I left the supermarket I was drawn to the elderly man, frail and hunched, struggling to stand, and raising his voice with rage and sadness. Had he not been wearing a skullcap, I may not have ventured over to him. My aching sense of care and pity, smack dab in the center of my gut, was all the encouragement I needed to approach him.


"Is everything alright, sir?" I quietly asked.

Standing with him was one of the store's employees who recognized me with a kind smile. "Mr. Cohen* is upset," she replied. "His taxi is quite delayed."

"Where do you live?" I asked him.

"Stoneway," he tersely replied.

"That's just down the road from my home. I could drive you. Would that be okay with you?"

A breathy "Yes, that would be fine," was about all Mr. Cohen could muster.

The employee helped load his groceries, and then Mr. Cohen, into my car. For Mr. Cohen, every move was a struggle. As we pulled away he asked, "Why would you bother to take me home, and why couldn't I sit in the front and put my bags in the back?"

Slightly shocked by these words, I made a concerted effort to remain calm. "I was more comfortable doing it this way. You seemed tired of waiting for the taxi, and since you live in the direction I'm going, it seemed like a good idea."

During the short ride, Mr. Cohen presented one challenge after another. Wanting to dissolve the palpable tension, I asked him, "So how did you end up living in this community?"

"The next time anyone comes to see me will be when I die. Why do you even care?"

With bitterness he answered, "My mother left the house to me, and I've lived here ever since. I hate my neighbors, I have no friends, and whatever family I do have, nobody ever calls or visits. The next time anyone comes to see me will be when I die. Why do you want to know this anyway? Why do you even care?"

Pained by this man's relentless anger and sadness, I drove along wondering how he became this way. I didn't know what to say, and feared that any reply would be met with more repelling remarks. "Mr. Cohen, I didn't mean any harm. I'm just being friendly."

As we approached two neighborhood synagogues, I asked what seemed to be an innocent question, "Do you get to shul much?"

Mr. Cohen became enraged. "I would never set foot in one of those synagogues. The rabbi is a horrible person." He recalled one occasion claiming that the rabbi accused him of wanting to hurt his own mother.

Utterly shocked, I remained speechless. A regular in his congregation for years before he retired, I knew this particular rabbi and that he was regarded as one of the most kind, warm hearted, genuine, and accepting human beings by his congregants and everyone who knew him. In all my years living in this area I never heard anything other than honorable words about him. I felt I just had to say something. Using a gentle voice, I told Mr. Cohen that I could not believe what he was saying and explained why. He was furious, insisting that I must not really know him. I chose to remain quiet and accepted that there was nothing I could do at this point to change his mind or heart.

Arriving at Mr. Cohen's row home, I got out of the car to help him down the path to his front door. I held his arm since he was quite unsteady and commented, "Gee that's a very steep step."

"What do you think -- I'm a toddler?!" he lashed out.

Controlled silence seemed like the best answer.

"I'm going inside and calling my friend Avi," Mr. Cohen grumbled. "He lives in Israel. He's my only friend. I don't know what I would do without him. He makes blessings for people. He's going to make one for you."

Pleasantly stunned at hearing these words, I smiled and said, "Thank you, Mr. Cohen. That's very lovely." I hesitated for a brief second and continued, "You know, if I had your telephone number I would be happy to call and see if I could run some local errands for you."

Feeling his darkness and pain, I was able to replace some of it with the light of kindness and compassion.

For a split second I could see a flash of surprise cross Mr. Cohen's eyes. When was the last time someone was kind to him? I wondered. Much to my surprise, he agreed with a simple okay and we said goodbye. I watched him as he struggled walking into his home, and I went back to my car.

Under regular circumstances, I would never have tolerated the way Mr. Cohen spoke to me. But by giving myself the permission to listen with empathy and patience, without judging, and feeling his darkness and pain, I was able to replace some of it with the light of kindness and compassion.

There are countless ways to do acts of kindness and bring meaning into our lives and the lives of others. It's not always easy or convenient -- sometimes it can be quite tricky and downright unpleasant -- but God puts other people in our lives for a reason. Take a healthy risk -- reach out and experience another person's universe.

Seena is a native New Yorker but has lived in the Philadelphia area for the past 25 years. She is married and has a son, two step sons, and two dogs. An artist and teacher, she writes, paints and teaches yoga. She keep an active commitment to fitness and living with spiritual inspiration.

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