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My Homeless Experience

My Homeless Experience

A Sukkot Lesson


Two people greet me first thing every morning before I start my daily work. There is the homeless man who sleeps on the embankment of the canal outside my door, and the cleaner who is just finishing his night shift.

Without fail, each and every day the homeless man—wrapped in a soiled wool coat many sizes too big, a deep scar cutting through his left cheek—lifts his head from his latent position, and through his crooked teeth says cheerfully in his Brooklyn accent, “Good morning, sunshine!” Every morning it is the same three words, and then, as though I had never passed, he puts his head back down between his knees and returns to his dreams. I am told his name is Joe. I throw a half-smile in his general direction, and rush on towards my car.

The office building is deserted at 6:30 in the morning. Yet, as I pass him today, I cannot seem to recall his name The only sound as I walk slowly through the otherwise silent halls is the low hum of the cleaner’s raspy voice as he sings his favorite Bob Marley tunes quietly to himself. I pass him as I make my way up the long hall, and he hastily stops his work, greets me by my name with his bent smile, and stands back against the wall and lets me pass, remaining in that position until I reach my office door. Each morning he takes the time to greet me by my first name, and yet, as I pass him today, I cannot seem to recall his name.

As I sit back in my chair behind my large oak desk, waiting for Windows to load, I wonder when I had become so conceited. Where had this feeling of superiority come from? What is it that makes me believe, even for even a fleeting moment, that I am better than those two men? That they don’t deserve my attention? That I don’t even take the time to learn their full names? Who am I trying to fool? Why should I assume that I am greater than Joe the homeless guy who sleeps by my door, or the cleaner who picks up after me? They have their place in the world, as do I. I may not envy their work or their lifestyles, but I do know one thing: I am in no place to judge them or assume that I know the type of people they are.

Why are we so quick to try and establish barriers, to separate ourselves from our neighbors, our workers and our peers? Do we not realize that it is separation that destroys us? Has it not already been proven, time and time again, that it is such demarcations which are hurting our people by slowly sucking out blood, until we are all so estranged and divided that we stand completely alone?

I am to blame as much as anyone else, but it is the festival of Sukkot which comes as a pointed reminder of the error in our ways; such is the power of Sukkot. Amidst a world of intolerance, rivalry and distinctions, Sukkot comes as a reminder of the value of unanimity and the beauty of every man. On Sukkot we abandon our homes, our rigid lifestyle, the physical rudiments which serve to divide us from our neighbors, and we move into the sukkah, a temporary dwelling place where status and position counts for naught. All differences are put aside, all barriers broken, as man and man come together to acknowledge the one thing that unites us—our quintessential souls.

It We do not discard that which is different, but rather we embrace itis only once we regain our true perspective that we are able to achieve the highest level of unity—namely, when our individuality is celebrated within the framework of a tight-knit community. When distinctions are glorified rather than eliminated, when our differences are venerated rather than stamped out. For it is only with the recognition of our inimitability that we are able to create the perfect whole, and it is only with this understanding that true unity can be achieved.

That is the message of the “Four Kinds” of plants which we are instructed to take in hand each day of the festival of Sukkot. We take the harmonious perfection of the etrog, sweet in both taste and smell, and we hold it next to the tall, straight lulav, the symbol of pervasive wisdom and knowledge. We shake them together with the hadas, the embodiment of activity and life, and we bind them together with the aravah, the archetype of true humility. As these four plants are being shaken as one, we are finally able to reach the ideal state of perfection. Each fruit offers something the others lack, and it is precisely through this that they contribute to the union of Israel. It is only through the salutation of individuality that we are able to unite the Four Kinds and form a picture of perfection.

On Sukkot we do not discard that which is different, but rather we embrace it. On the festival of joy we bring the diverse community together, breaking through barriers of division to unite. We take the four dissimilar plants and we bind them together for a single purpose. As we take the Four Kinds into our hands and shake them together under the sukkah roof, we are effectively saying that through our differences we are one.

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Anonymous October 20, 2017

Very misleading title. Reply

Feigele St Johns FL October 4, 2017

Passing by a homeless person every day, day after day, compels you to give them at least some food if not shelter. Circumstances, good or bad, awaits you at each corner of your life. G-d forbid it happens to anyone. our help seems so in vain when facing such a fate but we do our best. some banks, supermarkets, mailman or other places take food for the Holidays for charity. Reply

JAMES L. Cooley Topeka,ks October 7, 2015

תקון עולם Hebrew words, repairing the world. Reply

Gary Besner Casa Grande October 7, 2015

DEAR MIRIAMGRACE Where are you located? What city? Every city has food banks through which you can get free food. Also, most States have welfare programs - it's not much but within 4-6 hours they can get you emergency funds and food stamps $200.-400. And don't forget go to every synagogue towards the end of services and ask for tzedkah - don't be embarrassed - it is a mitzvah for everyone to give you money. Reply

Ann Houston October 16, 2017
in response to Gary Besner:

Observant Jews do not carry money (or anything else) on Shabbos, either after services or any other time.

Tell them to go to the synagogue after a WEEKDAY service!!! Reply

miriamgrace October 5, 2015

Currently I am homeless and living out of my car due to similar circumstances to the professor. I hold two degrees so not due to stupidity, only circumstance. Will be okay in a months time but am using the experience to think about needs of the homeless so that I can take action when I am able. A friend and I had already talked about putting together.brown lunch bags with helpful items such as boxed raisins, granola bars, a piece of fruit, a beanie hat, gloves, socks, juice box, small flashlights, etc... many of those items can be purchased in bulk or at the dollar store. Any other ideas would be most welcome. Reply

Anonymous Kenai Alaska September 28, 2015

I was waiting for her to invite Joe to her sukkah for a week of shared meals. I was homeless and abused from ages 16 - 23. Reply

Galit Gympie Australia September 27, 2015

surprised I really enjoyed this article and the comments it elicited. I was surprised by so many comments from people who have experienced homelessness. I am currently helping a friend who has been forced into a nusing home.....yes he has a roof over his head, but he has lost his home. Displacement is another kind of homelessness. Shalom Reply

Pamela Nebraska September 26, 2015

G-d saves the broken hearted I am a professor who lost their full, tenure track job in the recession. I have been living homeless in my car for the past 10 months. I applied to go back to grad school. If I got accepted, I would have many fees to pay for prior to leaving. And, I could not afford rent and all of the fees.

So, 10 months ago, on New Year's Day, I moved into my vehicle. From -19 below zero in the winter to 109 degrees in the summer....I survived.

This past March I found out that I got accepted to grad school. I am going to the Holy Land for a Master's in Holocaust Education.

In my 10 months of being homeless, G-d has watched iver me. Nothing bad ever happened. And, all of that money that I did not have to spend on rent?...Went instead to pay for my plane tickets, luggage, entrance fees, visa, new computer, clothes, new glasses.

Also, my Rabbi is a part of the ASK A RABBI team. He has stood beside me and supported me every homeless day of my life. I would like to thank Chabad for all that they do. Reply

Sandra McArthur ATLANTA, GA via September 25, 2015

Have seen the best and the worst of both sides. And from that perspective I can clearly state that stopping to speak to the homeless man and ask his name as a female by herself - irregardless have good intentions without someone close by to ensure safety is a foolish idea. Yes - many self are good people that by chance or circumstance or because of intervention from above ended up in the situation beyond their control--> others however due to: drugs, personal circumstance, mental illness - would be dangerous to engage in conversation without a back up of witnesses and/or an ability and willingness to defend ones self. Its ok not to understand all the evil in the world it is however not acceptable to be foolish to the point of our own destruction. I say this as someone who has not only done 30 years of volunteer work but is willing to 30 more if time allowes. Reply

Tehila Israel September 25, 2015

I wonder.... I just wonder if you took in your sukkah the homeless man you are talking about to share ...??? Or if you gave him something to be able to celebrate...? If you gave him a coat his right size with some cash in it or food to it?
I just would like to know what active practicality you did for him to help him because you forgot to tell us...
Many thanks Reply

Gary Samuel Besner Casa Grande, AZ September 25, 2015

So beautifully written Chana... Thank you for making me cry. Reply

Anonymous Topeka,Kansas September 24, 2015

.?ASpire, to a pro buono laywer? homeless may need an enormous amount of assistance, not just one days worth. ANd ,he/she may miss the good old days. Reply

Aaron Winnipeg September 24, 2015

Thanks Thank you Chana, you speak so wonderfully about these beautiful ideals. Humility and compassion.
The care for every person.
Thanks Reply

Anonymous U.S. September 24, 2015

Hollow Words... Would have preferred to hear how this 'epiphany' changed your 'actions' towards this homeless man. What way has this changed your life - other than shallow reflection. Shallow any 'discovery' remains until backed up by 'action'. Just watchin' the lips move... Reply

fairdeal Dublin, CA September 24, 2015

not just hearers I loved this articule but like many other people commented it looks like the compasion of the writer never gave birth to any action..sad. As a christian I am always encouraged to bless others and not only during Sukkot but EVERYDAY. Yes, pride is a rotten sin that permeates even the most religious people. We deceive ourselves if we believe that G-d is going to bless us wgile we look down other human.beings. may we all repent, ask for forginess but most importantly SHOW the change with good fruits. Reply

Ellen September 24, 2015

homeless Have you invited them into your sukkah? Reply

Anonymous Lebanon, OH. October 6, 2012

Been there, done that. G-d brings us to several different places in our lives. It's so interesting to hear about it, see it. Then it's a totally different thing to actually experience it. And with me, I've been in both positions: luxurious and homeless. I lived in poverty with my family for the first 13 years of my life, yet, I was happy. The next 8 years was the luxury part; blissful! Yet shallow. Then from 2004 - 2011 I was homeless on and off for a few years; hardest time of my LIFE, yet, fulfilling. But as of November 2011 - the present, the L-rd has given me a break, lol. And booooyy am I grateful! To be homeless is hard enough in this economy. But to be homeless with 2 children was the most difficult thing I've experienced yet. And I remember all those looks that me, my husband and my children used to get from those "I'm better than you" people. Psh. Then I used to imagine H-shem magically appearing in front of the person as they gave their glare. So yes, I too was waiting to hear the happy ending. Reply

Jaclyn Barnes October 1, 2012

A Homelessdow Experience Extremely well written piece!We all tend to think that we are better,then someone else!When I've seen those less fortunate out on the,streets,I have always tired.To give some form of help because one day,it could be you.Out on the streets!That's why we should never look down our noses at,someone less fortunate then us!Because we are all G-d's Children! Reply

m. s.jose, california October 1, 2012

Im reallly like this artice and it's positive
side hope we can find those names and
help them somehow, at least with a prayer
there are part of the 99 left, thanks for sharing this ufortunate story. Reply

Anonymous B September 30, 2012

Great to Reflect On I was rapidly caught up in what the author was getting at, like a finger pointing at the moon, and also there was more that I am still thinking about concerning an ongoing challenge to me.

Yes, we should remember that our quintessential souls are united rather than separated by artificial distinctions that are illusions created by our minds.

Also, the homelessness "hook" got me in. I am an older woman whose long-term husband has legal ownership of all our resources (because he wanted to, rather than that it had to be like this). He has always made comments threatening to end our marriage and homelessness for me would be the outcome though maybe I could eventually find some sort of roof over my head (but not owned by me). When our children were young I seriously considered leaving him because of his abuse, but the homelessness outcome blocked me - I felt I couldn't do that to the children.

Who are we? How do we live in our situations? How do we view & treat others in theirs? Reply

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