Please note: Each of my public radio essays was written and aired at different times between 1999 and now. None of them is posted in chronological order. Hopefully, the ideas and insights in each of them will transcend the times and places about which I’ve written. I hope you enjoy what I have to offer.
Some time ago, as I prepared for worship early one morning while standing by water’s edge on a beautiful Florida beach, the sun rose over the horizon, gleaming a fiery orange. In front of me rolled the seemingly endless expanse of ocean, its waves filled with life and the mysteries of life’s origins. Behind me rose ultra swanky hotels with their ghastly colored facades, each one uglier and gaudier than the next. I was all alone. It was just me, the water, and hundreds of people walking, jogging, slurping coffee and gabbing along the boardwalk behind me. Alone is often a state of mind. As far as I was concerned, I was truly alone as I wrapped myself in my traditional Jewish prayer garb and began to recite the early morning blessings of the Jewish prayer book. I was oblivious to the possible stares and befuddlement of beachwear clad passersby who would see me in my strange worship clothing from a distance. As I tried talking to God through my prayers, my mind wandered helplessly back and forth between the words of the prayer book and the awe inspiring setting of the ocean that can produce almost spontaneous inspiration.
Then I saw him. He was probably in his mid twenties, though his heavy black parka in which he huddled with the hood over his head made him look older. Thick black sneakers with the laces untied came up above his ankles, and he seemed not the least bit aware or disturbed that he was dressed for upstate New York in February while around us a clear, seventy five degree day was dawning. Fairly close to the water, and no more than twenty feet away from him with no one else close by, I was instantly repelled by him. Inferring from his dress and behavior that he was homeless and mentally ill, I was overtaken by a primal fear for my safety. I almost instinctively began planning how to flee him if he approached me. Having encountered my share of mentally ill homeless people, some of whom were violent, when I lived in New York City, I decided that it was in my best interests to avoid eye contact and to move away from him quickly. As I stood near him in a state of quiet panic and suspicion, my mother’s voice –of all things- suddenly broke through the cloud of terror and distraction inside my head: “Don’t run away from him or mistreat him. For all you know, he could be a messenger from God.” All laughter aside at the absurdity of the situation, I wasn’t really surprised that her advice popped into my head just then. From time to time since my childhood, she has reminded me and my siblings of that ancient Jewish folk teaching, impressing upon us that each person is so precious it is always possible for anyone –even the anonymous homeless man walking the beach- to be God’s messenger dressed in deceptive clothing.
I didn’t run away. I stayed to watch him lie down in the sand, oblivious to me and the rest of humanity, as the ocean wind crept gently around us. We were twenty feet apart, both of us out of synch with the world, but still separated from each other by light years of radically different fortunes. I was a privileged, middle class man enjoying God’s sunny company while wearing Bermuda shorts. He was a homeless man, clothed in the winter-dark colors of mental illness. My heart opened to this person who I did not know, who I would never befriend and whose life I could not change. With my compassion for him overcoming my fear, I began to weep as I touched the fragile yet persistent bond of humanity drawing us together. My mother’s voice faded, and from deep within me I imagined hearing God responding to my prayers by asking me: “Is your heart breaking for this man?” “Yes,” I answered between sobs. “Good,” God said, “Now you can truly begin to pray.”
Dan Ornstein is rabbi of Congregation Ohav Shalom, and a writer living in Albany.
© 2010 By Rabbi Dan Ornstein.