Around three years ago, a new face appeared amongst Jerusalem’s ‘bag men’.
Those people who sleep rough in the Holy City. This new face stood out, because it belonged to a fairly young man who began his journey into madness and destitution wearing Nike trainers and looking like a male model. It happens not infrequently that some visitors to the Holy City, especially younger men, spend a night or two sleeping rough on one of the benches dotted around.
Usually, they’ve run out of money before the plane home, although sometimes, it can also happen to people who live here more permanently. The crime rate is so low, even in a big city like Jerusalem, and the weather for 7-8 months a year is so warm, that sleeping outside on a bench is not a terrible option.
So, the first few weeks I saw this young man asleep on a bench, I figured he was a student, a backpacker, a tourist, who’d run out of cash and was just waiting for his plane home.
He had a large knitted kippa on his head, and a straggly beard together with his long blonde hair, so I had him pegged as a new baal teshuva from America, or some place similar.
Maybe, he’s found God and his parents back home are upset and have cut off the funding…
That’s what I thought, the first few weeks I saw him sleeping rough.
Then, he went off the radar for a while, and I forgot all about him.
A year later, I saw him again – and this time, he was wearing an outfit made entirely of black bin bags, that he’d turned into some sort of suit. He even had bin bags wrapped, and wrapped again, around his feet, like a cheap copy of the shoes worn by mine zappers.
The beard was longer, and there was a wild look in his eyes that signaled that the madness had completely taken over, and dragged him down to that place of searching trash cans for the recyclable bottles that were going to buy him a meal.
I felt so sorry for him.
But what could I do? Honestly, he looked a bit scary at that point, and I wasn’t so close to him, to go over to try and speak to him or give him some money. And he wasn’t asking for money – if anything, he was giving off a mad, proud vibe that he was some sort of independent hunter-gatherer, spearing one old coke bottle after another, for supper.
No-one should get in the way!!!
That’s the vibe I got, as he stalked over to one trash can after another, a look of intense concentration on his face.
The next time I saw him, I was in the car and he was speed walking along the pavement by the trempiada leading out Jerusalem. Again, he had that fixed, mad determined look on his face, in a rush to get somewhere fast. His clothes had deteriorated even more – he was wearing some sort of loin cloth made of supermarket plastic, and another plastic bag on his head that he’d fashioned into some sort of head-covering.
The bags on his feet were gone, and with his long blonde hair and beard, he looked for all the world like the poster boy for an ecological apocalypse.
My heart went out to him. I couldn’t stop the car, I couldn’t pull over, but I decided there and then, next time I see him, I am going to buy him some clothes.
The next time I saw him was yesterday, almost a year later.
He was walking along the road by the French Hospice that leads onto Tzahal Plaza¸then on again to the Old City. Thank God, he was wearing real clothes, and even a pair of real sneakers, that were ripped at the sides but still functional.
The bag on his head had been replaced by a big knitted kippa, but the fixed, determined madness still shone out of his face, and he still walked fast.
This mad, homeless man was always in a perpetual rush to get somewhere else.
It took me a few second to figure out who he was as he passed by, but then I realized it was the man I’d promised to buy clothes for. I fumbled in my purse for some money, saw that I had 20 shekels I could give, as an opening gambit, and ran after him.
As I got close to him, I made the mistake of calling out hey! I’ve got some money I want to give you!
For a moment, I forgot he was mad. I forgot he’d been living rough for three years. I forgot that people only go mad like that in the first place when they’ve been through unspeakable things in their childhood.
First he cowered away from me, like I was going to attack him. Then he half-pushed / half-slapped me away, and sped walked off.
It didn’t hurt.
Mad as he was, he was still pretty gentle. He could have punched much, much harder, but he didn’t. He just didn’t have the words to tell me to leave him alone, and it was very clear that he wanted me to leave him alone.
He didn’t want money, he didn’t want my concern, he didn’t want any offers to buy a new pair of pants. He was off, searching for truth, searching for God, running away from who-knows-what, and he didn’t want anyone getting in the way.
I sighed a deep sigh, stuffed my money back in my purse, and walked off in the other direction.
I can’t help him. He’s so far gone, no-one can help him. Only God can help him.
And let’s be clear, God is helping him, because he’s totally out of this world, and yet he must still be finding food, and a place to sleep and even a place to shower every day, because he looked clean and didn’t smell bad at all.
And then I thought of all the other people out there struggling with such enormous problems, and the poor, mad person came to personify our poor, battered nation.
We’re all in such a rush, rush, rush today, and we have no idea why. No-one can talk to us, no-one can offer us help. Even when our Tzaddikim rush after us with bounty and blessings in their hands, we attack them and push them away.
Leave us alone! We know what we’re doing! We know where we’re going! We don’t need help from anyone!
The same madness that is propelling this man from trash can to endless trash can is weaving its pernicious spells around us, too. We’re so busy dumpster-diving, trying to come up with a new deal, a new client, a new business, a new project, a new holiday, we have no time to stop and to really think.
What is all this for? Where is all this going? What is the point, really?
Not for the first time, God showed me that I can’t solve other people’s problems.
All I can do is pray.