Provided by SocialAction.com, an on-line Jewish magazine dedicated to pursuing justice, building community, and repairing the world.
New York of the mid-1980s was a beautiful place to be. Gentrification brought cafes, bistros and bookstores up and down the Upper West Side, Columbus Avenue and Broadway. Spring saw this neighborhood at its finest. Cafes would bring tables out on the sidewalk and every block was filled with diners.
But at the end of each café’s sidewalk umbrella, a much crueler story was unfolding. The homeless population was exploding in size. Streets were filled with men and women asking for money and food if they were sober enough to do so. If not, they slept ten feet from your sidewalk table for two.
I knew a man named Timmy, a graduate student at Columbia who was not much of a café goer, but whose heart broke for the people living on the street. He rebelled against the sidewalk café tables by taking his own table, a supermarket cart, into the streets. Every night, Tim would cook a 50-gallon vat of soup and slap together a box of sandwiches and walk the streets of the upper West Side, offering street people to join him in a decent supper.
I was 19 and I thought Timmy was the greatest person I had ever met. Certainly, he was greater than many of my professors, sitting at Café Boccaccio, with their backs turned to the street.
The Story of Mar Ukba
In later years, as I became a student of the Talmud, I found the story of a woman much like Timmy, who welcomed street people at her table. The Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Ketubot 67b) tells the story of Mar Ukba, a third-century rabbi and his wife. They were in the habit of secretly donating money to a poor man in their neighborhood.
One day, to protect their anonymity, they fled from the poor man and jumped into a furnace (where else?) which had just been extinguished. Mar Ukba’s feet immediately began to burn, but not his wife’s. She received spiritual protection unavailable to him. "Your gifts are too private," she explained. "I am always at home and poor street people come to see me. I invite them in and we sit at the table together." Mar Ukba’s wife was a third-century Timmy.
This week’s Torah portion, Vayakhel, tells the story of Moses and the children of Israel building the Mishkan (the Tabernacle) in the desert and all the vessels and structures it required. For centuries, the Mishkan and later the Beit ha-Mikdash (the Temple which stood in Jerusalem) served as the spiritual center of the Jewish people. It was destroyed in 586 B.C.E., rebuilt, and destroyed again in 70 C.E. In its absence, rabbis, prophets, mothers and shoemakers have dreamt of its return and the spiritual sustenance it brought.
Ezekiel the Dreamer
One such dreamer was Ezekiel, a prophet of 2500 years ago. Living in Babylon after the destruction of the first temple, he dreamt of a Mikdash rebuilt (see Ezekiel chapters 40-48).
The Rabbis of the Talmud (Tractate B’rachot 55a) found an inconsistency in one verse of Ezekiel’s dream. He dreamt of the altar in the temple, but refers to it as a shulchan, a table. Why does he call the altar a table? asked the Rabbis. Rabbi Yochanan, a third-century Rabbi in Israel, offers an interpretation. When the Mikdash stood in Jerusalem, the altar offered atonement and allowed us to return to God, lacking the Mikdash, "it is our tables in our homes that offer us atonement and closeness."
Rabbi Yochanan gives us insight into the spiritual power behind the story of Timmy’s table and that of Mar Ukba’s wife. As one mystical commentary explains, there is a yichud, a oneness that is achieved in the world when the poor are brought to our tables. To see them on the street reminds us of the world’s brokenness. To sit with them at our tables, create relationship with them, begins our collective journey back to repair and wholeness.
Most of us may not be ready for the courage shown by Timmy or Mar Ukba’s wife. Yet, there is much we can do to reach out to those at the periphery of our communities and give them a seat at our tables. In doing so, we return a oneness to the world–one for which we all long.
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