My wife has cousins or aunts or uncles in every small town in eastern Washington. One day, a cousin came to visit us for a few days. When the visit was over, she had to return to her home. She was traveling by intercity bus, which she had to catch at the bus station which is at 8th and Stewart.
Now, the bus station seems to be gathering ground for a lot of unseemly characters. I'm sure that most of them are just down and out, but some of them might be up to no good. So I escorted the young woman to the bus station, made sure she got on the right bus, etc. All was well, the bus pulled out of the station and that was that.
My sleeve was pulled by an old man.
"Excuse me, sir". he pleaded, "could you spare an old man a shekel or two?"
A shekel? What a strange thing to ask for in an American bus station. In America, of course, our money is dollars. A shekel is the currency in Israel, and insofar as I know, nowhere else. Why would an old man ask me for a shekel.
"Sir", I said, "I have no shekelim". shekelim is the hebrew plural of shekel. But the question was amazingly strange. I looked at the man carefully. He was short, perhaps 5 foot 6 inches. Three or four day growth of beard. Tattered nylon jacket. Plaid wool shirt. Missing several teeth, and what teeth were left were in sad shape. Stench of alcohol on the breath. Dark brown hair. Brown eyes. No juandice in the eyes. No trouble balancing. A scar on one cheek. "I think what you want is a nice meal". And then I tested him with what little hebrew I know. "Po bo, b'vakesha". Come here, please.
"Todah", he replied. So he knows a little hebrew. How does he know I'm Jewish? I'm not wearing a yamakah today.
So we went to the resteraunt at the bus station, which is not high cuisine, but I figured beggars can't be choosers. Besides, I was curious about this fellow who somehow recognized that I was a Jew and who spoke at least a modicum of hebrew.
We got food. I took a cold turkey sandwich and water. He got a hot cheeseburger, a side of potato salad, a small carton of chocolate milk and a small green salad with french dressing. The checker looked at him, and glared. "Beat it, bum", she told him.
"Wait a second", I told her. "He's with me".
"Oh yeah? What's his name?"
I turned to him and asked, "What is your name?"
"Isaac", I told her. She looked at me, open jawed. "What is the total for the two of please?"
"$10.42", she stammered.
So I paid her and Yitzhak and I found a table in a quiet corner and sat down. He wolfed down the cheeseburger, chugged the chocolate milk in one swallow and ate the green salad in three fork fulls. I watched him in silence, nibbling at my sandwich.
"I suppose you want to who I am, why I am talking to you, all sorts of things like that", he said.
"The thought had crossed my mind", I conceeded.
"What would you say if I told you I was a Messiah?". he asked me.
"The Jewish Messiah or the Christian one?", I asked back. One of the traditions of Jewish thought is that you always answer a question with another question. However, there was another clue in his statement that I totally missed.
"What difference does it make?"
"Well, the Jews don't have a well developed concept of a messiah. There is no mention of a messiah anywhere in the Torah and everything that's really important to Jews is in the Torah. All of the rest of our literature is either history, wisdom, or commentary. By way of contrast, the messiah is central to Christianity. I'm already amazed to meet a man who claims he is the messiah, and if he is the Christian messiah then I am stunned. But suppose I conceed the point that it makes no difference, why would the messiah find me, a reform Jew who is ignorant?"
"Where would you expect to find a Messiah?", he asked me.
"I don't know. I'm not looking for the Messiah. What makes you think I believe you are the Messiah?", I asked him.
"What difference does it make? And how do you know that there is only one?", he asked me.
"That question really bothers me. The other day I had an arguement with my son, and I told him that if everything is immoral, then it is useless to discuss morality because you can do no right. But if everything is moral, then it is still useless to discuss morality because you can do no wrong. I don't have a well thought out idea of what the Messiah is supposed to be, but I think that the messianic age is supposed to be a time of peace and justice."
"And compassion", I ammended.
By this time, we had both finished our meal. "Thank you for lunch. Let's go for a walk", he suggested. So we cleaned up the table and threw away the garbage and walked out on to Stewart street. It was a typical winter day in Seattle, low overcast, temperature in the low 40s, light drizzle, moderate wind. We walked around the corner out of the wind and found a cluster of humanity and their luggage, all smoking. There were two women, juggling tennis balls. A mother and child. Assorted men, standing around waiting for something. Even though the wind was cold, the air was foul with tobacco smoke and the stench of unwashed bodies.
"You see those two women?", he indicated.
"What about them"?
"Those two women are jesters, but they are also blessed", he stated.
"Because they are jesters, and they bring cheer to the downtrodden and depressed. They also create peace, where there is strife. That mother over there", he pointed at a woman with a young girl, maybe 5 or 6 years old, smoking, "is fleeing an abusive husband. She has lung cancer and will not survive a year. But treatment is expensive and risky."
"How do you know these things?", I was incredulous.
"I told you: I'm a messiah".
"Then heal her".
Exasperating bastard. I lost my temper, which is a bad habit I have. "I don't believe you're the messiah. I think you are just a bum who is messing with my mind for some reason. I gave you a meal. I've listened to you. I've watched you. The real Messiah might have eaten a hamburger, but not a cheeseburger! You say you know things about these people that they don't even know abou themselves. How can I test anything you say? How can I understand it?"
"First of all, it isn't necessary that you believe in me. Second of all, a lot of the talmud, which you are quoting correctly, isn't what is really required. The Rabbis created this elaborate fence around the torah to protect you from sin. Fat lot of good it did you"
"Which is why there is Yom Kippur"
"Precisely, which is why there is Yom Kippur"
"There is nothing that forbids cheeseburgers in the Torah"
"Your knowlege of Jewish knowlege does not convince me that you are the messiah."
"No problem. Your belief or disbelief is irrelevent. I have a task for you"
"Yeah, you. C'mon". He started off, then stopped, wracked with coughing. Then he spit a large bolus of phlegm on the sidewalk. The rain slowly washed it away.
Rav Aron Tendler explains that the basic job of the Jewish nation is to sanctify G-d's Name at all times. As the "kingdom of priests and a holy nation" we must reflect the truths of Torah in all our actions. However, it is as a nation that we are supposed to accomplish our mission, not as individuals. Of course, the individual is still responsible to sanctify G-d's Name; however, the job of spreading G-d's Name to the other nations is far greater than any one person can do alone. We can only do it as a nation. According to the Rambam, Mashiach (Messiah) will bring the mission of the Jews to fruition. But G-d knew that each and every Jew would have to believe that they were responsible for bringing the final redemption. "Every day I wait for his arrival." If the actual date of his arrival were known beforehand, many would abdicate their personal obligation of sanctifying G-d's name. Regardless of the ultimate accomplishment of the final redemption, each of us must do our part in our lifetime to proclaim the majesty of G-d's Name through prayer (towards G-d), and acts of lovingkindness (towards one another).
We walked back into the bus station. There, amidst the crowd, and the clutter and smell, sitting quietly on the floor was a woman of perhaps 15 or 16 years of age. "See that girl?", he asked me.
"What about her?"
"Talk to her"
"You me to just go up to her and just talk to her?"
So I looked into his eyes again, and then I looked at her. She seemed harmless enough. How do I go talk to a strange young woman in a crowded bus station without seeming tawdry? I have a wife, and children. What do I say to her? Why are my hands suddenly twice as large as they were a moment a ago? I've been to births, I've been to funerals, I've been to dances. I even remember disco. I am not a teenager anymore, I'm middle aged. What am I waiting for?
My imagination kicks in: "Hi, you don't know me but I got a message from god to talk to you". Yeah, right.
I sit down next to her. Good, she hasn't screamed "Rape!" yet, although the afternoon is still young.
I ask her "Do you find all this a little intimidating? I sure do".
She stared at me. "Are you trying to pick me up?"
Oh, great. Next, she is going to scream rape and I will spend the rest of my life behind bars. No good deed goes unpunished.
"Actually, no. You probably won't believe me, but a man who claims is the messiah said I should come talk to you. Tell you what: I am just scared of you as you probably are of me, so what if we agree to just sit here and talk".
"You're afraid of me?"
"Sure. All you have to do is screem 'Rapist' at the top of your lungs and I'll be arrested, tried, convicted, and imprisoned. So let's just sit here and talk"
"Alright. Who did you say sent you?"
"That man over.... ", but of course, he was gone. I stood up, looked around, didn't see him. Exasperating bastard.
"Never mind. Tell me, what are you doing here"
And the flood gates opened. She was 16 years old, had stolen some money and run away because nobody cared about her. Communication difficulties with her parents. Troubles at school. Best friend moved away. No primary health problems, at least not that she knew of. 45 minutes later, she stopped talking and asked me what I was about.
So I talked about my wife, and my children, and how I had this cousin-in-law in Eastern Washington, and that I was a computer expert (Men always identify themselves by what they do instead of by what they are), and I talked to her about Yitzhak, and did she know anything about him? No.
So what was her plan now? She didn't know. Maybe it wasn't such a bright idea to come here. She wanted to go home but she didn't know how to do it.
"Ah. I have a plan. I call you parents, tell them where you are, and then send you home."
"Just like that?"
"Well, for me, yes, just like that. For you, it is a little more challenging, because once you get home, you have to figure out how to stay there and, if not be happy, at least be safe."
So I called her home, collect. They accepted the charges. I told them who I was and where I was and who I was with. She didn't want to talk to them. But she was willing to go home. They were unwilling to send any money. Fine, I have a credit card. I told both her and her parents that would have to talk when she got home, but that would take several days by bus. They should spend the time thinking about what they wanted to say. They were deeply suspicious. I could understand why she might find life with them problematical. While talking, I kept looking around for Yitzhak.
I bought her a ticket. I bought her a meal. We waited for the bus for an hour. A man tried to pick her up. "Beat it, creep", I told him. When her bus was called, I escorted her to her bus. I gave her my last few dollars to assauge her hunger. Then, just before the bus was to leave, Yizhak showed up.
"Hey, I have lots and lots of questions for you", I told him.
"Sorry. Gotta catch a bus. Thanks for the task, by the way", and he hopped on. "By the way, you are a messiah now".
"You are a messiah. Why do you think there is only one?"
Then the door closed, and the bus pulled out and disappeared into the early evening gloom.
I never saw Yitzhak, or the girl again. About a week later, I got a check in the mail for the ticket and the meal money. But I wasn't satisfied. Did the mother survive her lung cancer? What did the jugglers do? Did I really meet the Messiah? or a messiah? Can I really eat a cheeseburger with a clear conscience? I never found out.
I don't think I have supernatural powers, and I am certainly don't things about people that they don't already know. But I guess I have a responsibility now, to go take care of the world. As best as I can.
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