Gimme Shelter

September 22, 2009

6 min read


We are all homeless until we use the tools we've got to build shelters for our souls.

Are the homeless really so distant?

"I know what you think of when you look at me," the homeless man says. "But you should know that I was just like you guys. Not too long ago I was a student at Columbia. I had friends and family and classes. But you see I didn't use what I had. I didn't want to deal with life on its own terms."

He pulls up the sleeve of his ragged shirt to show us the tell tale lines of suffering that form a web across his arm. We sit there on the corner, staring in back of us into the darkness of Central Park and then down at the dirty piles of snow on the sidewalk. We look anywhere but into his eyes as he opens the hot meal that we have brought him. Our breath rises into the bitterly cold air as the unasked question flutters silently around us.

Why are you still here? Why don't you try again? Find a way beyond the unspeakable horror of being homeless on the streets of Manhattan. I think this to myself, and I am pretty sure my friends are thinking this, too. But no one speaks. I shift uncomfortably, stamping my feet to stay warm. And I have only been outside for half an hour! The cold seeps into the layers of my ski jacket and creeps into the warmth of my gloves.

He is wearing a light jacket and pants stuffed with newspapers.

John has only a light jacket on and pants stuffed with newspapers. How does he survive this way? I try to picture him on a college campus with his knapsack full of books, heading back to a heated dorm room. How could he possibly have gone from there to here in just a few years? As if reading my mind, he finishes the soup and looks me straight in the eyes.

"You know it's really not that bad. I got used to it after a few months. People can get used to anything after a while." He shrugs and smiles. Then he asks us if we have more food packages.

"I'll show you where my friends are. They live on the edge of the park over here... "

That Could Never Be Me...

How many times do we dismiss each other's suffering by the thought: That could never happen to me. Rav Noach Weinberg, of blessed memory, used to always say that if you hear about a negative experience that happened even to an acquaintance you should ask yourself: What can I learn from this? If your friend is going through a divorce, be afraid that it can happen to you. Work on your marriage. Learn from others' mistakes as well as your own.

A few weeks ago we were stuck in a standstill on the way back from vacation. After sitting for an hour on the road with several ambulances passing by, we realized that a serious car accident had just occurred right in front of us. People started getting out of their cars and walking around. Some people started smoking while others wandered around looking for a bathroom. Just moments before the crash, I had remarked how dangerously so many people were driving. There were cars passing with hardly any room in front of them; there were drivers who were tailgating us so closely that we couldn't even see their cars. And for what? So that they would get home from vacation 20 minutes earlier?

When the traffic finally started moving again, we passed the horrific scene of what turned out to be a fatal accident. There was blood and glass everywhere. The cars were smashed in half. Yet three minutes after passing this accident, most of the drivers around us began to become impatient once again. I couldn't believe it. A car with an entire family in it tried to pass a truck right in front of us and there was simply no space. What could this father driving the car be thinking after he just witnessed a fatal accident? But I knew what he was thinking: That could never happen to me.

But it does and it could. And that is what I learned, sitting there on that snowy winter day on the edge of Central Park.

Our lives are so fragile; we try so very hard not to contemplate how quickly our lives can change from one moment to the next. And the truth is that eventually we need to accept that most aspects of our lives are not in our control. From the moment we are born, we are handed a whole list of givens that we didn't choose: our parents, our looks, our intelligence, our economic status, our health...

One key choice is ours to make: What we do with what we have.

And as we grow, we realize that this list will become longer every year. We don't choose much of anything at the end of the day. But there's one choice that is ours to make: What we do with what we have. Do we choose to believe in God and push forward in the face of adversity? Or do we wallow in self pity for all the parts of our lives that we can't control? Do we choose a life of truth and integrity and growth? Or do we hide behind the myriad excuses that make sense until someone with more courage overcomes an identical obstacle?

And what do we do with what we have? What do we do after we graduate at the top of our class? What do we do with the awe of a stunning sunset? What do we do when we finally reach the top of the mountain? What do we do with the brilliant ideas that we just learned or the inspiring prayers that soothed our broken hearts? What do we do with the sweetness and royalty of Rosh Hashana? Where do we place the introspection and life altering thoughts that rose so high during Yom Kippur?

And that is the gift of the sukkah. Right after Yom Kippur ends, we are commanded to build something that reflects the closeness and trust of the weeks before. We are given the chance to use everything that we have: our bodies, our wealth, our spiritual yearning; we are given the opportunity to build a structure that transforms our potential energy into reality. And then when the walls and the roof and all the decorations are in place we can sit beneath the stars and remember that the homes behind us are not our real shelters.

Just as the walls of our sukkah seem so vulnerable to the rain and the wind, we should remind ourselves of our own vulnerabilities. We don't choose the constructs of our lives, but we can choose who we become. And in some ways, we are all homeless until we use the tools that we are given to build shelters deep and vast enough to embody the infinite light of our souls.

Next Steps