Monday, a woman came to visit the Chapel at Smith. She was upset and asked to speak to one of the Chaplains. Since I was the only one around, I invited her into my office. This woman, who I will call Harriet (not her real name) had been trying to find help for her family and kept hitting brick walls at agencies and community organizations.
After talking with her for a few minutes, I found her situation was beyond my understanding of our local community agencies, so I invited Tiertza-Leah Schwartz of Service Organization of Smith to help me talk with Harriet. Tiertza confirmed that she had tried all of the proper steps and sympathized that Harriet and her family were still falling short. They owed a huge amount to a lawyer for the custody battle and were being threatened by the electrical company to have their service turned off because they owed a large amount ($1000+). One room of their house is heated by electrical heat but electrical service is not covered by programs t0 maintain heat.
Tiertza suggested she try the local DA's Consumer Advocate office and to try to establish a payment plan.
Harriet also had been to the local Salvation Army to get Spring clothing for her three children (9,7, and 3) but was disturbed that they couldn't get shoes. Also, other children were laughing at them for the clothes they were wearing.
Here is a case where one parent is working a job paying a reasonable amount but they are barely putting food on the table and providing shelter. Simple things like suitable clothing and electricity were beyond their means.
I understand that our social net is stretched thin due to the economy. Rising energy prices and interest rates are hurting those who make it by the slimmest of margins.
How come we can't produce a society that allows people to live dignified and satisfying lives while working? Why wasn't there more agencies could do for this family doing all the right things to provide for their children?
What is our responsibility as people of faith?
Our tradition teaches us that you can never turn away someone empty handed when they ask you for help.
Beyond monetary help, Harriet was demoralized by the negative responses she received at other agencies and even local churches and synagogues. She needed someone to listen to her, empathize with her pain and humiliation, and treat her respectfully. All that took is time--which is something that all of us have to offer.
The Midrash teaches us that in the end we all have only a few occuptations:
"Open the Gates of Righteousness for me . . . (Psalm 118:19)
[At the Time of Judgment] in the Future World, everyone will be asked, "What is your occupation?"
If the person answers, "I used to feed hungry people," they will say to that person, "This is God's gate, you, who fed hungry people may enter. . . ."
"I used to give water to thirsty people," they will say to that person: " This is God's gate, you who gave water to those who were thirsty may enter. . ."
"I used to give clothing to those who needed clothing," they will say to that person: "This is God's gate, you, who gave clothing to those who needed clothing, may enter . . . and, similarly, those who raised orphans, and who performed the Mitzvah of Tzedakah and who performed acts of caring, loving-kindness." (Midrash Psalms, 118:17).
There are many types of hunger and thirst in this world: people hunger for dignity, for self-respect, they thirst for happiness and satisfaction. Of course, people also hunger for food and thirst for liquids. Clothing is the symbol of dignity and societal status: tattered clothing usually means you are among the poorer in society and nicer clothing means you are among the middle. Fancy clothing often means you are wealthy. (I know that $200+ jeans are often tattered and that there are nice, cheap clothing but I think my point is clear).
Even if the answer to Harriet's pleas to other agencies was going to be no, the response made her feel worthless and undignified.
There may be a happy ending to this story: we have taken up a collection to pay half of her outstanding electrical bill and a few chapel staff members with children similar sizes will work on getting Harriet some clothes and shoes.
In the end, it is how we relate to people and not just the answer that responds to the spiritual hunger and thirst that underpin the physical one Harriet brought to the Smith Chapel.
May we each find a way into God's Gates by responding to people with an open mind and heart.
B'shalom, Rabbi Bruce