Last Saturday morning I saw a man and a woman lying face down on the sidewalk. My first thought was, “Are they dead?” But I saw no blood. Moreover, they had a pad beneath them. A sleeping bag covered the woman. The man’s leg twitched. Homeless, they perhaps preferred the sidewalk to the damp of nearby Mountain Lake Park. What—if anything—was I supposed to do?
I called the police is what. Not to report a crime but rather to seek help I couldn’t provide. I hoped that the officer(s) who came by after I headed onward would see if the couple needed medical attention and, regardless, direct them to city services.
Ideally, I would have taken the couple home, fed them and given them money. I might have offered them my guestroom for the next month, meals provided. But in the real world, people on the street are unknown quantities. Such acts of charity can at best be challenging, at worst dangerous.
Does this trouble me? Of course. When Abraham, in pain on the third day after his circumcision, sees three “men” approaching his tent, he runs off to greet them and offer hospitality (Genesis 18:2ff). Exodus 22:20–22 commands us—for the first but not last time—to care for the stranger, widow and orphan. The verse also poses a dire penalty if we fail to do so. But Abraham commanded a small army of retainers to safeguard him. And while travelers passed through Israelite dwelling places, local widows and orphans were known.
The musical Fiddler on the Roof offers an interesting perspective. In the opening scene, the orchestra vamps the song “Tradition” as Tevye introduces the key characters in his shtetl town of Anatevka. One is Nachum the beggar. Tevye offers Nachum one kopek. “Last week you gave me two,” says Nachum. “I had a bad week,” Tevye explains. In a brilliant piece of Jewish logic, Nachum responds, “You had a bad week. So why should I suffer?”
Nachum is a known factor, a familiar face. He lives in a society that recognizes him and is thus comfortable assisting him even if it does not do what Maimonides proposes is best—set him up to make a living. (Frankly, not everyone can make a living.) For the people of Anatevka, he is “our” beggar. When a Jewish stranger comes by, he is a known quantity.
Some people do take strangers off the street. Yet sometimes, those offered assistance turn on their hosts. So while it’s easy to love the stranger from a distance, most of us hesitate to deal close up with people we don’t know. That’s why we empower public and private agencies to provide professional assistance.
Obviously, we haven’t solved the problem of homelessness. Some people, like those recently rousted from San Jose’s “Jungle,” prefer living in an encampment or on the street. This enables them to live on their own terms—which may not be ours.
Deuteronomy 15:11 informs us, “For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land…” Yet the commandment to assist the stranger endures. Conflicted, we struggle to make sense of it all.
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