By David J. Seidemann, Esq.
He appeared in shul last Shabbos–not in Lawrence, but, save for details, he could have just as well shown up here. Instead, he showed up a few hundred miles to the west of here, as reported to me by the family involved in this episode.
Davening had concluded and a long-haired, dirty-bearded, disheveled man presented himself at the kiddush. The children in attendance at the synagogue that morning ran the other way. Most of the adults turned the other way, pretending not to notice this man. The rabbi, noting that the visitor hadn’t groomed himself in quite a while, correctly figured that he had not eaten in just as long. He invited the apparently homeless man to partake of the kiddush food. But when the man began to drink wine, the rabbi kept a close eye on him. When the guest began to drink the hard liquor, the rabbi asked him to leave.
The disheveled man stood up in protest and began to rattle off names of prominent rabbis he knew in New York and then began to quote and recite by heart passages of the Talmud. He then began to recite sonnets and then listed his resumÃ© and told how he once dressed like all of the people who were now uncomfortable looking at him. He proceeded to list his prior places of employment and how, but for his misfortunes, he would be inviting guests to his home for Shabbos.
But in a flash, before anyone could engage him in further conversation, he disappeared.
The person who relayed this story to me earlier today confessed that if this hadn’t happened two days before Rosh Hashanah, he might not have given the encounter a second thought. Timing is everything. After all, this shul had seen its share of strange or offbeat persons over the years.
Fast-forward to later that Shabbos afternoon, about two hours before Minchah. They had just finished eating the Shabbos seudah when they heard rustling in the trash cans by the side of their house. The father looked outside and, lo and behold, it was the same man they had seen in shul earlier that morning.
The mother of the household went to the refrigerator, cut up a whole chicken, packed it with potato kugel, salad, cake, fruit, and drinks, and handed it to the man who once was like them.
As he began to walk away, the mother noticed that the man was not wearing shoes or socks. She quickly ran upstairs to her son’s room, grabbed two pairs of socks and a pair of shoes, and ran after the man, who was now a block away. The man who was once like them was a little bit more like them, albeit for a brief moment in time. For a few moments, his belly was full and the pangs of poverty were disguised. For a few brief moments, perhaps he felt whole again. For a few brief moments the man was who he used to be.
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It’s been bothering me for years, and this year I thought of a possible answer. I shared it with a few Torah scholars who believe my question is a good question and, more importantly, believe that my answer is an appropriate one.
Isaac, as we read in the Torah on Rosh Hashanah, is walking with his father Abraham towards Mount Moriah. He turns to his father and asks, “Here you have brought the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the sacrifice?”
Why did Isaac assume that his father was going to sacrifice a lamb? Not knowing that he, Isaac, was the intended sacrifice, Isaac assumed it was an animal. But why a lamb? When the episode concludes, it was not a lamb, but a ram that was caught in the thicket by its horns.
What is the difference between a lamb and a ram? A lamb has no horns, no shofar to become ensnared in the thicket. A ram has horns, horns that become trapped, ensnared, entangled, diverted by the bushes, by sin, by imperfection.
A lamb is the young lad–pure, pristine, with dreams, aspirations, free of sin, and hopeful. The lamb is the lad who does not need to rummage in refuse for sustenance. The ram is a weary man tried and tested by the passage of time. Tainted by disappointment, failure, and sin.
Our forefather Isaac believed that only the man who was as soft and innocent as the lamb could appear before the Master of the World and serve Him. Gâ€‘d thought differently and sent a ram with the bent horns, horns that were caught in the thicket to signify that even the homeless, disheveled man, the man who “once was but is no longer,” can appear on Rosh Hashanah and ask to be judged favorably.
We are all homeless, shoeless, and hungry. All of us have our horns trapped in the thicket we call Olam HaZeh, this material world. To be sure, we live in a community where we have wonderful rabbis who are running after us with food, shoes, and socks of a different material as they try to bridge the gap between who we once were and who we are now, as they try to turn back the clock to help us shed the harshness the ram exhibits and restore us to the innocent life of a lamb.
This is how we stand before Gâ€‘d on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Gâ€‘d, do You see how we are today, this very moment as we stand in shul? This is not an act. Remember that we were once like this when we possessed the innocence of a child, before we got caught in the thicket. We can do it again, Gâ€‘d. We can be the same in adult form. We can be the man that we once were.
David Seidemann is a partner with the law firm of Seidemann and Mermelstein and serves as a professor of business law at Touro College. He can be reached at 718-692-1013 or