Monday, September 14, 2009

Dwelling in God's House-Psalm 27

I have made a pledge to a friend this year. I promised that in lieu of money this year I would, to street people begging, only offer food or clothing or something of that sort. The exercise has been rather interesting for someone who in the past handed out money pretty indiscriminately. In fact, I was/am one of those people who essentially thinks if someone is in a place to beg, who am I to judge. My job is not to tell someone what to do with or how to use my gift but simply to try and help with a bit of extra cash.

We all know the arguments against this - they will use it for drugs,for alcohol etc etc. I find this a rather disturbing claim simply because adult people, with da'at (consciousness, awareness) make choices and who am I to tell them what to do with the money I just gave them. Alas, the argument my friend made was a bit more convincing - food and clothes much more helpful for someone in need. So I agreed at least for the past year to try it and so I have. The journey has been illuminating and mostly I like it for selfish reasons because I get more from my giving than ever before. I am not in a rush, if I have to buy someone food instead of handing them a bill, or reach into my glove compartment for the snacks I now store there or wait with them to purchase something at Starbucks I am simply much more conscious of my efforts - I pause, the experience has that built in inherently and I am forced to think. Think about society, about life, about what I have (instead of my usual what I don't) and of course about the person next to me and my discomfort - at their smell or how they look or how dirty they are.

During the Season of the High Holydays we recite Psalm 27 every day for approximately 6 weeks. There is a famous line in the Psalm:

One thing I ask of the Lord, only this do I seek: to live in the House of the Lord all the days of my life, to gave on the beauty of the Lord and worship in God's Temple.

I always wondered about this beautiful line - knowing the Psalmist's intention was to refer to life after death, that when we die we would be "with God" - in Judaism' version of Heaven. The problem with this of course is during this season life is on the brain we are thinking, hoping for life so I really wanted to know how we might understand this line a little differently. And then I went on errand just before Shabbat this past week. As I emerged from checking my mail and began my walk to Starbucks a man, clearly homeless or at least in need, disheveled and dirty, called out "Mam, Mam". Taken aback I turned around toward him, he continued "can you spare a dollar or would you be willing to buy me a sandwich?" Now as I wrote above, I wasn't giving money this year so I quickly replied "happy to buy you a sandwich". I told him I needed to return to my car (I had only enough cash for a Starbucks not a Subway sandwich) to get my debit card. He asked if he could get in line, he did and when I walked into Subway it was his turn to make a selection. I encouraged a generous option, (telling him to go footlong instead of 6inch figuring he could get two meals out of me) after selecting a cookie and asking if he might also get a drink - I handed him his food, he offered some kind words and I in return asked him to stay safe. As the employee ran my card - he looked at me with a dead serious look and said "you shouldn't buy him anything, he isn't really homeless, I have seen him in a car". I paused and smiled, thinking about the man's dirty clothes, fingernails and stench and wondered to myself who knows, who ever really knows? The Subway sandwich maker asked me why I was smiling I said to him "if someone asks for food I provide it because I can, no matter whether his story is true or not. If he is so desperate to ask, then I am more than happy to swipe my card and have $10.00 less in my bank account." He looked back at me, unconvinced and said "I've called the police on him before," knowing he wasn't going to be convinced I said "you can do whatever you feel is right, but if I have to live in a world with people who beg I am going to respond no matter the real tale behind their request." I smiled, told him to have a nice weekend and signed my receipt walking out the door with this drash in hand.

I don't know what the Psalmist really meant by that line but God's House, dwelling in the Lord's house in my life is the ability to respond to the call of the imperfect world. God's creation humanity is imperfect our world is filled with flaws, disasters, loss, devastation and to be able to respond to one of those needs, to answer someone's crying out is to dwell in God's house. God's house in this world is the one that answers skepticism with compassion and destruction with construction. So I respond to the call with a small token, some food, a smile or clean pair of socks. And when I daven that line, when I really say it what I am asking God for during this season is the opportunity to do these acts because they grace me with the ability to dwell with God and to act in God's ways.

The message seemed particularly appropriate on the day we mark the tragedy that is 9/11 when people used violence to destroy God's house. However, the memories I take with me in addition to those lives lost are those people who went back into the buildings risking their own lives- firemen, police officers and ordinary folk who went into destruction in order to exhibit acts of unparalleled compassion and love. I remember those clergy people and others who went down to the site of the towers to offer comfort, support and a shoulder. In those moments, in those terrible moments - those people they were exhibiting what it means to dwell in God's house - so the one thing I ask of God this year is the opportunity to respond to the imperfect world with acts of loving kindness and compassion - moments, actions which remind me that I do dwell in the House of the Lord and will continue to do should I choose to continue to respond to that call.

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