Commentary

When the Beggar Knocks

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Avi Killip

 

Three fancy Upper West Side hotels have been converted into homeless shelters, one of which has been designated for men struggling with substance abuse and addiction. The Jews of the Upper West Side have been vocal about this development — but with conflicting messages. Many have watched the neighborhood change with the influx of these new neighbors. They see a version of life from which they were previously shielded, and they feel afraid for themselves and their children. In turn, they have called on the city to reverse course, closing the new hotel-shelters and relocating hundreds of people. A second group of local residents are presenting a different message. This group is proud of the neighborhood for taking in and sheltering people who are otherwise the most vulnerable to contracting COVID in overcrowded shelters. They proclaim unequivocally that a “stay at home” direction for those without a home can be deadly and are protesting to keep the new hotel-shelters open. While loud voices exist on each of these sides, a third group is watching and quietly struggling with the choice. They feel deeply the obligation to welcome the homeless, a value in which they have always believed. And yet, they feel afraid of the people and behaviors they are seeing in the streets. Their fear is real, even if they are sometimes embarrassed by it. Do they want these new neighbors to stay? They are deeply unsure.

This story has been catching headlines. But it is not unique to this neighborhood or this city. That we allow people in our country to go hungry and unsheltered has been true for years and has become much worse since COVID hit this year. The numbers of hungry and homeless people in this country are staggering. In the abstract, we find this knowledge horrifying and demand to know why our country doesn’t take better care of its people, and yet, on the individual neighborhood level, we find our charge to care for people harder to fulfill. This phenomenon has been termed “Nimbyism,” an acronym for the phrase “not in my backyard.” We want people fed and housed, but not in our own homes and kitchens–not even in the backyard.

This struggle to balance our obligations and our anxiety is happening today, but this struggle is also ancient. The Talmud offers three stories that explore the tensions held by many contemporary Americans. They each ask: What are we meant to do when the beggar comes to our door? How are we meant to respond? What is being asked of us? Although the Talmud contains many laws and stories about people who are hungry or poor asking for food and shelter, the three stories I share here are not about the experience of poverty. They are about the emotional and psychic experience of being personally asked to open our doors and give. Each story is told from the perspective of the giver, and in two of the three stories the beggar is not even a real person. Read together, these stories offer a complex picture of the delicate balance between the feelings of responsibility and fear that surface in the moment when the beggar knocks.

The question of how and where to build shelters for people who are homeless is a question of behavior. To discover the right thing to do — the right way to behave — from the perspective of Judaism requires us to explore Jewish law, which tells us how to act. But if we want to better understand the experience of the heart, if we seek deeper insight into personal emotional reactions, that is when we turn to stories.

The first two stories — each very short — when read together, offer us the extremes of what we imagine we should do when a beggar knocks at our door. The first story sets the highest possible bar for our behavior. Shabbat 156b tells the unlikely story of the wedding night of Rabbi Akiva’s daughter. It was fated, we are told, that on the night of her wedding she would be bitten by a snake and die. Miraculously, she averts the severe decree by pinning her hairpin through the wall, directly into the eye of the snake. In the morning, Rabbi Akiva finds her alive and questions her about what she could have done to merit this changing of fate. She answers:

“In the evening a poor person came and knocked on the door, and everyone was preoccupied with the feast and nobody heard him. I stood and took the portion that you had given me and gave it to him.

This woman models for us the most extreme possible version of caring for and feeding a poor person. She does not outsource the work of caring for the hungry even on the night of her own wedding. She alone is able to hear the beggar over the din of her own party. She doesn’t offer him some leftovers found in the kitchen but her own portion of food designated for the bride herself. She sets an impossibly high standard for selflessness in the face of poverty. Who wouldn’t forgive a bride for focusing on her own joy on the night of her wedding? Rabbi Akiva’s daughter represents our best selves. The part of us that feels the responsibility to care for the poor must be held above all else, in every moment. Caring for the poor, she teaches us, is not merely important; it is a matter of life and death, not necessarily for the recipient but for the giver. In this story we learn that when the beggar knocks, answering the door could save your life.

Mo’ed Katan 28a, however, teaches exactly the opposite. Rabbi Hiyya, we learn, was so righteous that the angel of death could never take him because he was always involved in his study. So the Angel of Death disguises himself as a poor man and comes to knock at the gate. When others in the household bring food out to him, he calls past them to Rabbi Hiyya: “Don’t you, Sir, treat the poor kindly?” Having been called out so directly, Rabbi Hiyya stops his study and answers the door. Seizing his opportunity, Death swoops in for the kill: “showing him a fiery rod, he made him yield his soul.” For Rabbi Hiyya, answering the door was also a matter of life and death. This story embodies our worst fears. Why do we cross the street when a beggar approaches? Why don’t we open the door to every hungry person? What do we fear? The image is not subtle: we are afraid of death. In its worst and most extreme form, we are afraid that if we open the door, death will grab us. (In this moment of COVID spread and “contactless delivery,” we know this fear of death lurking at our doorway all too well.) This strange image of the Angel of Death dressed as a beggar may feel problematic, but it also helps articulate a feeling many people experience. When we see a person suffering and hungry, we are reminded of the fragility of our own lives. We imagine that if we stay far away from the poor and remain shut safely in our homes, we will avoid death. The tactic seems to work for Rabbi Hiyya, until it doesn’t.

These two stories paint the extremes: the woman who always gives, and it saves her life; the man who gives once, and it kills him. A third story, found in Kiddushin 81b-82a, paints a much more nuanced and complicated picture. It is one of the more bizarre stories in the Talmud and reads almost like a horror thriller. And, like a horror thriller, it begins in the most peaceful of settings, in the home of a righteous man named Pelimo, on the evening just before Yom Kippur. We can imagine the scene: family gathered together in anticipation, food on the table for the pre-fast meal, Pelimo in his freshly cleaned white robes. After a month of teshuvah (repentance), Pelimo likely feels his best, cleanest self just before the holiday of atonement.

Pelimo’s character is established in the first line of the story with a single fact: each morning Pelimo said aloud “An arrow in Satan[1]’s eye!” This man’s daily affirmation taunts Satan. He believes himself to be so righteous that even Satan cannot touch him, and so Satan decides to find out. On the evening of Yom Kippur, Satan disguises himself as a poor man and appears at the back door of Pelimo’s home. As in the story of Rabbi Hiyya, food is taken out to the beggar, but not by Pelimo himself. And, like the beggar in that story, this supposed beggar is also not satisfied. Having been fed at the doorway, he calls into the house, “On such a day, when everyone is within, shall I be without?” The phrasing of his question emphasizes a key spatial imagery of the story: who is within, and who is pushed out? His request is honored, and he is brought into the home. Perhaps he is given a seat in the kitchen at the back door. Again, he asks to come further inside: “On a day like this, when everyone sits at a table, shall I sit alone?” He requests, maybe demands, to be seated at the family table. The family invites him in. Only when this man is fully inside the home and seated at the table does his body begin to change. Suddenly they notice that his skin is covered in sores. Pelimo admonishes him to “sit properly.” In response, the man asks for a glass of liquor but, instead of drinking from it, he spits phlegm into it. The scene is written to trigger the gag reflex. This man — not really a man, but Satan in disguise — is the personification of disgust. When the family scolds him for his behavior, he keels over and dies right there at the table. As in the story of Rabbi Hiyya, they have opened the door to the beggar and let in illness, disgust, and death. The scene plays out as our worst nightmare of what might happen if we choose to open the doors of our cozy, safe homes to welcome a person in need.

But the story doesn’t end there. In fact, it gets worse. Pelimo is blamed for the man’s death, or, at least, he fears he will be. He begins to hear shouting: “Pelimo has killed a man! Pelimo has killed a man!” As readers, we don’t know if these voices are real or only inside his head, but, regardless, Pelimo decides to run away. Flipping the spatial imagery, the beggar has made his way into the center of the home and Pelimo is forced out. He runs to the edge of town and hides in the public restroom. Having left the pre-Yom Kippur cleanliness of his home, he finds himself in the dirtiest of spaces; ancient public restrooms were likely even more disgusting than their modern counterparts.

Now we move into full zombie movie territory, as Satan, posing as the dead poor man, rises and chases Pelimo into the far reaches of the public bathroom. Pelimo is overcome with fear and falls, prostrating before Satan. Again reversing spatial expectations, instead of prostrating before God in shul, as Pelimo intended, he finds himself in the most unholy place, prostrating before Satan. Seeing Pelimo’s extreme suffering, Satan takes pity and reveals his true identity. In this final moment of the story, Satan models mercy and then vulnerability, asking Pelimo, “why have you been provoking me?“ Instead, he asserts, “You should say: ‘[May] The Merciful [a name for God] rebuke Satan.’”

Read as a whole, the story doesn’t paint Pelimo in a positive light. This is the story of a man who believes himself to be more righteous than he is. His desire to be so good that he cannot be touched by Satan is actually deeply self-centered. His focus on being good is a personal goal that is seemingly entirely disconnected from the needs of others. Unlike Rabbi Akiva’s daughter, who is able to hear and care for the poor even at her own wedding, Pelimo cannot prioritize the poor even on the eve of the Day of Atonement. From this story, we learn that if we are bowing to God in shul on Yom Kippur while thinking more about ourselves than the poor man sleeping in the street outside, we might as well be bowing to Satan in the public restroom.

And yet we can all see ourselves in Pelimo. Why does Satan choose to dress as a beggar? What makes this such a hard test? This story — although excessive in every way — validates fear of the poor as an ancient and human struggle. Pelimo knows the right thing to do: he should feed the beggar and welcome him into his home. But the knowledge of right and wrong is not always enough to quiet our fears and even, sometimes, our physical response of disgust. The story of Pelimo allows us to hold both realities: the knowledge that his behavior is wrong and also that his behavior is driven by a human response that we may share.

Many of us face this challenge. We want to be good people, to do the right thing, and we know what that should look like. When asked in the abstract if we should welcome people who have no other homes into empty local hotels, the answer could not be more simple: Yes! As humans and as Jews, we must do everything we can to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and provide shelter and safety to those in need. But many local residents are struggling to find their way to this yes. They step out of their front doors and encounter a person defecating on the sidewalk. They walk past someone holding a needle, with a bruised arm. They are approached directly and asked for money by someone not wearing a mask. And they respond viscerally, the way that Pelimo and his family responded. Like Pelimo, they question why they have opened their home –the Upper West Side feels like their home, whether or not it truly belongs to them — to potential disease and disgrace. We want the hungry to be fed but don’t really want to share the same table.

Let me be clear: this is not an Upper West Side problem. I am writing now about this particular location because it is so close to my home, and because the Upper West Side is home to my Yeshiva, the place where I work and teach. But this same situation is occurring in cities throughout the country. As a nation, we are raised to fear “the homeless.” We have never really been taught to open our own personal doors.

In my home growing up, every year when we would gather for the Passover Seder, my mother would announce that she had made a donation to a food bank in honor of each guest. She explained annually that she began this practice “since we cannot open our doors directly to the poor.” I always imagined this to be a very wonderful example of caring for the world outside. I never once questioned the assumption — and the lesson I was learning — that “we cannot open our doors directly.” Why not? Why couldn’t we invite someone hungry to come and eat at our table with us? This may also have been the routine in Pelimo’s home, and that of Rabbi Hiyya too. They did feel a responsibility to feed the poor, but they outsourced the interaction to someone else. In their case, it’s a family servant; in our case, it was the food bank.

I find these stories helpful and challenging as I navigate my own dual response when I am approached directly and asked for food or money by someone who makes me feel scared. I think of these stories every time I walk past fellow New Yorkers sleeping in the street, even on bitter cold nights. These stories help me navigate the world as it is. But this is not the world as it should be and not the world as it must be. There is a danger in reading these stories with static categories of have and have-not. The world is not divided into givers and beggars. I believe that our responsibility goes far beyond even the image of Rabbi Akiva’s daughter. Justice is not a question of the wealthy sharing with the poor; justice is when we no longer have a category of poor. We will have justice only when nobody needs to sleep in the street. As can be found elsewhere in Jewish texts, most notably in Rambam’s often-taught hierarchy of tzedakah (could be translated as charity, or more literally as justice), our real mandate is not about opening temporary shelters; it is about finding homes and ongoing safety for all people. In order to begin to pursue real justice, we must start by asking what systems are at play — systems that discriminate against certain races, genders, sexualities, states of mental health — that have resulted in some having homes and others depending on shelters. And then we will need to be brave and relentless enough to dismantle and change those systems.

Aggadah is a gift. These stories are a rich starting place to help us dig deeper into understanding our hearts and minds. Yet, we cannot live only in stories. At some point, we must turn to action. There are real people seeking shelter and food in our city and in our country. They are not the bogeyman image of the “poor” we find in these Talmudic tales. They are not death-in-disguise, and they have not entered our lives to provide us with the opportunity to do mitzvot so that we may subvert our own severe decree. Their needs don’t exist in order to test or teach us. They have lives and stories. Each of their lives is unique and infinitely valuable. And yet, their presence is a test. How we behave in the world is a measure of our righteousness. Like Pelimo, we have each been given an opportunity to rise to the moment.


[1] Satan in rabbinic texts usually appears to test characters, ultimately pushing them to be better people.

Avi Killip
Avi Killip is Hadar's VP of Strategy and Programs. A graduate of Hebrew College Rabbinical School, Avi also holds Bachelors and Masters from Brandeis University. She was a Wexner Graduate Fellow and a Schusterman Fellowship. Avi teaches as part of Hadar's Faculty and is host of the Responsa Radio podcast. She lives in Riverdale, NY with her husband and three young children.