Evaluating Our Own Pharaohs

Today on the train, there was a homeless man. He stepped onto the train and announced his name and made a brief speech asking anyone had any food, water, or money. At first, everyone was polite but didn’t offer anything besides a small “sorry” or “nothing on me”. Eventually, he started circling the train car bothering people individually before starting his speech over again, louder and angrier.

The man was clearly unwell, and folks were on guard. A younger woman in a Hillary-esque business suit encouraged the man to check out the local mission and they’d help him find work, a place to live, etc. He made comments and excuses to that until another man yelled in Cuban-accented Spanish – “find a job!”

Finally, he jostled a middle-aged black woman who began to respond to him, explaining calmly, but sternly, that all the folks here work hard and they’ve all offered options to help that didn’t offer money. Please respect that and go away. Which the man finally did.

The train settled into an uncomfortable silence and I thought that would be that. I myself was upset, but mostly at the tension. An older man, who happened to be white, started grumbling loudly about immigration. It seemed like a throwaway comment, and folks ignored him until he repeated these comments louder. A younger man on crutches asked the man to kindly keep his opinions to himself. He deflected this retort and started complaining about “them” and the southern border (keep in mind the homeless guy was Cuban…).

I asked, “What does this have to do with immigration? This was an individual with problems”. Others agreed and chimed in that it had nothing to do with race.

Another middle-aged white guy asked the antagonist where his parents came from. He said Connecticut. Undeterred, the friendly white guy (FWG), doubled down and said, “Yeah, but their parents were from Europe right?”

AWG (angry white guy): “Yeah, so?”

FWG: “Well my family is from Ireland and they, like most communities, had a hard time immigrating to the U.S.”

AWG: “Well they worked their way here, these people coming across the southern border are coming here with nothing and no one.”

FWG: “Actually, most immigrants come to join family, who help absorb them into society and help them find jobs, that’s what happened with the Irish, and the Jews.”

I couldn’t help myself, so I finally chimed in: “It’s cool, I bet he doesn’t like Jews either.”

That shut up the AWG for a minute and earned me a few laughs. With tension cut for a moment, the nice black lady, along with most of the train exited, leaving the four white guys (the guy on crutches, FWG and AWG and myself) there to solve the issues at hand. We went around in circles, of course, as the AWG refused to even listen to the points being offered, and asking combative questions like “Have you even been to the southern border?” And defensive things like: “I help people, I go to church!”

The three of us watched as the train approached another stop at bayside. Finally, the AWG’s stop came and he left. The man on crutches left too. The FWG and I lamented the AWG’s views but shared a deeper frustration with folks, in general, being unwilling to listen, even to a train full of people telling them they were wrong.

I thought I’d leave the train upset and frustrated over the encounter with a homeless man but I found him far less threatening or obstinate than the AWG. Instead, I left the train remembering that at this time of year, as we do our Passover shopping and clean our homes, let us remember that the holiday celebrates freedom, but unless there is freedom for all, we haven’t accomplished that goal, and none of us are truly free. We are all slaves to different pharaohs in different Egypts. In the case of the homeless man, it appeared to be his mental health and the cards he had been dealt. For the AWG, he was a captive of his own ignorance and hardheadedness.

So as we go into Passover 2019, let’s all seek to evaluate our own Pharaohs and our own Egypts, and see what we can do to make it to our own brand of freedom.

Charley Smith served the Minneapolis and Saint Paul Jewish Federations by developing their platform for reaching young adults and millennials, YALA. Today he lives in Miami with his partner, Shaked, and their dog Gever. Charley continues his work with the Federations today managing Honeymoon Israel, Birthright Israel, and the local cohort of the 248Community Action Network.