The tzaddik grew up in the Bronx, across from Yankee Stadium. That must say a lot about him, but I’m not sure what exactly. His family lived in a shvitzy little apartment, overcrowded with uncles and cousins and such. That was in addition to mamma, poppa, the tzaddik and his two younger brothers.
Of course, he wasn’t a tzaddik yet was he?
But I have a feeling that this was the moment he began to learn what being tzaddik was all about. And that it wasn’t about just one moment, but about a commitment pour la longue durée. And I think this story changed my life forever. But I didn’t know it until much much much later.
It’s all about a moment at Pesach. Probably around 1937 or so. The tzaddik and his brothers were kids. Their father was leading the Seder —
There’s that moment when you open the door for Eliyahu ha-Navi. And of course, there’s a cup of wine for the Prophet in the middle of the seder table as well. We invite Elijah in to share our Passover meal with us. I always thought this was a symbol of opening the door to anyone who might be hungry. They should come and eat.
According to Chabad, however, the Prophet Elijah oversees the bris of every Jewish boy on the 8th day of his life. Elijah acts a bit like a lawyer (or maybe a judge?) (or maybe a cop?) making sure that the kid has been circumcised correctly. On Pesach, Chabadniks say, we invite Eliyahu in so that he can check that all the Jewish men at your Seder table have been properly circumcised.
Did you know that? I didn’t. Don’t you just love Chabad?
So. In the tzaddik’s house, they —like most American Jews, I would surmise— were unclear on the Elijah-door-opening concept.
Obediently, the tzaddik went to the door on his father’s order. He opened the door of their overcrowded two bedroom Bronx walk-up apartment.
There, on the threshold stood a shabby beggar.
Of course, the tzaddik invited him in. The man sat at the table with them after he’d been brought a basin to wash his hands and face. He ate the sumptuous Bronx feast that was already stretched between so many mouths to feed. He took his broken shoes off and gave his tired feet a rest. Someone handed him a pillow so he could ‘recline’ — as Pesach dictates.
And he stayed.
He stayed the next day. And the day after. He stayed the next week. And the week after that. He stayed the next year. And the year after that.
Thirty three years, he stayed.
Long after the tzaddik had left for the Promised Land, California, the beggar stayed. He did errands for the tzaddik’s family. Helped out a bit here and there. He was a master of the art of making people happy. And, after thirty-three years, he died in that apartment. He was, after all by then, family.
I think about this story not just at Pesach. I think about the boys my father found lying on the museum grounds, or panhandling in Berkeley. The boys he took in, nurtured and transformed. His unending line of lost-boys. He would give them a little push, and watch them thrive. Okay. Sometimes it was a big push.
I think about his non-judgmental stance toward each and every new encounter. His, “you never know what good a person will do —” approach to all who sought his blessing.
I could never be like that. I’m judgmental as hell.
But I too open that door. And let people in, in my own way, of course. Generally speaking, it’s not the front door. And it’s not beggars. But it certainly has been homeless people.
The wife of a student of mine called. They were desperate, she said. Neither her family nor his would take them in. They were just back from a year abroad in Bath. Could they stay with me for a few weeks, while they looked for a place to live in the City?
I’m pretty sure that at that point I had never met her.
They came. They stayed their three weeks. They found a place. They left.
The phone rang.
Can we come back, she begged. And so they came to stay. The next day, and the day after. The next week. And the next month. They stayed with us, along with their fat rabbit, Sherman Tank. And they had each a sense of humor that could not be denied. His, loud with waggling gestures. Hers subtle and sly. And they made us laugh — through a tough patch in our lives.
Three years they stayed. Until their growing family outgrew our house, and they moved on.
Since then, the door’s been open for others. And each one brought some subtle texture to our house. Okay, sometimes a nutsy texture — like the Bolage episode. But most of those who came to stay, we came to love. And they came at odd moments. And they added some element that we hadn’t known was missing.
Trust? Is it trust that let’s them in? I don’t think so.
I think it’s just about being willing to open that door — and letting this new person you didn’t expect really come in. And you don’t know why you’re doing it. And I don’t know why I’m doing it right now. But I am. And it feels right. A whole new adventure, by just saying yes. And a whole new project emerges, that changes everything.
And here we are.
And maybe I’m the one who’s really hungry. And maybe I’m the one standing at the threshold. And maybe it’s my turn to cross over and walk in — and say yes to things that I’m good at saying no to. And maybe it is time to make a commitment pour la longue durée. And sure. Okay. You’re right. It is about trust. It’s always about trust. And I trust you.
And maybe it’s just a short Pesach story from 1937. No more than an anecdote, really. And maybe it doesn’t mean anything at all.
And maybe the tzaddik’s family made a mistake. And Eliyahu was just there to check the circumcision status of the males of the family. And by mistake, they invited him to stay.