Report from the Streets and the Flattery of Imitation

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, February 22, 2019 / 17 Adar Rishon 5779

Summary: Rabbi Kosak reports on the impact of Soup to the Streets where congregants directly feed our city’s unhoused where they live.

Report from Our Streets and the Flattery of Imitation

This is our third year running our Soup to the Streets program, originally called Guerrilla Compassion (Next month we will wrap up our services until Autumn 2020.). For three years, people have gathered in my home as we made a few hundred sandwiches and simmered ten gallons of soup. Over that time, we have distributed thousands of meals to our city’s unhoused one sandwich and one cup of a soup at a time. When we see a tent or a sleeping bag, we pull one of our vehicles over and ask if anyone would like something to eat. More recently, we’ve also begun distributing socks, which remain one of the most important articles of clothing to those who don’t have ready access to sanitation or laundry facilities. An infected foot is a major calamity to people who spend most of their days wandering around outside.

One statistic I wish we had was how many unique individuals we have fed. Occasionally, it’s clear when we have met someone before. But more often than not, it seems like our crews are encountering people for the first time. Indeed, this past Monday, Mora Vicki Rotstein was serving soup on the East Side. She had a conversation with a young man in his early twenties who had been living on the streets since he was fourteen. In all those years, he said, this was only the second time that someone had offered him food.

This is both surprising and not unexpected. It is surprising because if one accepts the city’s statistics, Multnomah County tallied over 4000 people on the street one night last year. By this count, our very small program has probably served that many meals. Given how many other churches, synagogues, mosques and social service organizations are involved in providing food and shelter for our city’s most vulnerable population, one could be forgiven for imagining that any individual who had lived on the streets for 8 years would have encountered many such people bringing a little nourishment their way.

Yet the story Mora Vicki relayed is hardly unusual. First, I am highly suspicious that the city is able to take an accurate census of our unhoused. That is a notoriously challenging task; suffice it to say, there are probably a great many more people without permanent homes than that 4000 number indicates.

Second, and more relevant, is that there are many different populations of people who find themselves without homes. These different groupings have ended up houseless for a variety of reasons. Many of them have consistently had negative experiences with society’s institutions. These are the folks who are least likely to interface with our shelters and soup kitchens. They simply feel uncomfortable negotiating those more structured interactions.

Additionally, if you are seeking a safe place to pitch a tent, proximity to a soup kitchen may not be your first consideration. Our food banks, shelters and soup kitchens can scale up production well beyond our capacity, and thus offer more “bang for the buck.” Nonetheless, they are also limited in who they can reach.

Finally, in the spiritual realm, giving is never uni-directional. I have written about this before, and how those of us who chose to ladle soup and hand out sandwiches are also changed by our service. The spiritual economics of that are also not something that can be replicated by larger soup kitchens, which I respect and where I have volunteered in earlier years.

The Flattery of Imitation

Humans inherently learn by repeating and by imitation. Language itself would not be possible if infants did not carefully study and reproduce the sounds their caregivers make. We live in a world that celebrates the individual, and therefore we mark creativity as an inherently superior activity. Implicit in this celebration is the belief that the produced work is somehow unique to the individual who makes it. Certainly our copyright laws and intellectual property depend on this sort of assumption.

Yet there’s a real problem in this belief. Very little, if anything, is genuinely creative, meaning that it exists on its own. The vast majority of ideas are recycled or pedestrian in content. Most of what we call creativity is the repackaging of components that someone else before us brought together. That doesn’t mean they lack value; simply that our age probably ascribes more value than is proper. Designers try to develop their own language, but inevitably they are inspired by and utilize motifs from others before them. This is true in most fields of human endeavor. Our ancestors understood this when they would compose books. Rather than take credit for their own work, they would ascribe its authorship to an earlier, more famous writer. Theirs was not an era of the ego.

In Judaism, we are also asked to state something “b’shem omro”—to reference the source from where we learned an idea . Doing so is said to hasten redemption. In theory, this is a pristine and noble concept. In practice, we often forget where we first learned something. When we do recall, though, it’s great to give credit.

The source for Soup to the Streets came from a book I read over twenty years ago, by Rabbi Yehuda Fine. His “Times Square Rabbi: Finding the Hope in Lost Kids’ Lives was an account of his rabbinate serving coffee and sandwiches to youth who society had thrown away. I read it not long after I left New York, which is where I first came into contact with homeless individuals.

It made an impression on me, and a few years back I gave a sermon here in which I talked about its impact and how I always aspired to Rabbi Fine’s example. That’s the real impetus. Of course there is nothing new in what Rabbi Fine did either. Sacred literature of all traditions speaks of feeding the destitute, often in vivid detail. Nevertheless, “a teacher appears when the student is ready.”

These thoughts came to mind over the past week because at our last Soup to the Streets, some non-congregants showed up to help. Somehow the word has gotten out to the wider community and folks wanted to participate. One of those is a twelve year old boy named Zander. He and his family came, in part because he was looking for a mitzvah project as part of his upcoming bar mitzvah. A few days ago he and his mother each wrote me. Zander intends to reproduce Soup to the Streets as his mitzvah project and to bring it to his own congregation. Fantastic!

We should all be fortunate enough to have our best ideas stolen. That’s the best measure of success. It’s also the secret to how values endure in sacred traditions. When we get something right, we pass it on.

Shabbat shalom

Rav D


Shabbat Table Talk

  1. Which of your best ideas have you inherited? Which of your best ideas have you passed on?
  2. What sort of acts of chesed, of kindness to others, have changed you the most? In what ways have they done so?

If you’d like to continue this discussion, follow this link to CNS’s Facebook page to share your own perspectives on the topics raised in this week’s Oasis Songs. Comments will be moderated as necessary.

Torah Sparks Commentary This Week