In a Handshake

By Donna Jacobs Sife

A poor, sick, old man was begging on the street where there was much noise and gaiety. He stopped a passerby, extended his hand and said, “Charity, for the sake of God. I an unemployed and starving.”

His eyes were tear-stained, inflamed with fever; his lips blue with cold. He was dressed in rags. How cruelly life had treated him. He lifted his hand toward the passerby who noticed it was red and swollen with frost. While raising his hand asking for alms, he groaned and sighed. The passerby, feeling deep sympathy, searched his pocket for a coin - but there was nothing in his pocket. No wallet, no coin, no handkerchief. He had apparently changed his clothes and forgotten to transfer his things to the suit he was now wearing.

The poor beggar continued waiting while the passerby searched through his pockets. The beggar’s hand was stretched out and lifted up. Owing to his weakness, his hand trembled and shook a little. Confused and feeling sorry, the passerby grasped the hand which was outstretched to him. Now, entirely at a loss as to what to do, he shook the trembling and unclean fingers in his own strong and kind grip. “Forgive me, dear brother” he apologised, “I have nothing with me to help you with. Nothing.”

The poor beggar pressed back the hand which was squeezing his and with a tortured smile returned the handshake of the passerby. “No need to apologise, my friend” stammered the beggar, as he lifted eyes. “I thankyou for the handshake. This, too, is true charity, my friend, my brother.”

The problem of the refugees coming into Australia is a complex one. There is fear that if we allow some illegal immigrants to enter, then all fifty million will charge the gates. There is fear that the refugees will rob us of our livelihoods, our standard of living, our safety. We are far from having empty pockets, but fear that is what we will be left with, if we continue to reach in and give to those in dire circumstances. We fear that we will inherit long standing feuds and conflicts, violence that will undermine our peaceful existence. It has always been like this. In 1948, the fear was directed towards the Jewish refugees.

As Jews we have a particular sensitivity to dispossession, being driven from our homes. We know what is like to travel hopefully across an ocean, escaping death; only to be refused entry, and turned around, to perhaps perish anyway.

‘Homelessness’ is a word that has grown and redefined itself in our modern times, like the word ‘family’. Children of broken families find themselves ‘homeless’ increasingly, as parents restabilise themselves in new relationships and circumstances. Children whose parents work long hours are robbed sometimes of a feeling of ‘home’ as we know it. There are kids in the neighbourhood here, who are made to feel not ‘at home’ in their community. They cannot catch a train or walk to a friend’s place at night without being stopped and questioned by police. Gays are not made to feel ‘at home’ within certain institutions. The homeless on the street are increasing in number. Aborigines, robbed of their home, struggle to find acceptance and dignity with what is left to them. And yes, the world’s homeless will only increase and become more desperate.

It seems to me that because of fear, some of us forget that people are also a rich and extraordinary resource. We are not just required to reach into our pockets, but we will also inevitably benefit from the experiences and cultures and ideas that every individual carries with them. Something is being required of us, that must go beyond fear. It lies in the handshake of the story. It dwells in compassion. The Pirke Avot, Sayings of the Fathers say “ Let your house be opened wide, and let the poor be members of your household”.

As Midrash says “ Why did God create only one Adam and not many? He did this to show that one man in himself is like an entire world. Also, he wished to teach mankind that he who kills one human being is as guilty as if he had destroyed the whole world. And similarly, he who saves the life of one single human being is as worthy as if he had saved all humanity.