I don’t recall exactly how old I was when “the man in the car” showed up on our street, but I was a young child and the incident made a lasting impression. It was smack in the middle of a New York winter - when the cold is brutal and being outdoors can at times be downright dangerous - when a creepy-looking man pulled up in front of our house, parked his car, and decided to dub that particular spot his new home. At the time, I didn’t understand the incongruity of a homeless man driving a car. He wore a shabby coat and could have used a haircut.
It appeared to be a long time since he’d last taken a shower. He would leave the car during the day, most likely passing the time in some public indoor area where he could escape the fierce elements, and would return late in the evening to spend the freezing night in his car. My mother a”h began to keep him in mind when cooking and my father z”l would bring him bowls of hot soup, which didn’t solve the man’s problems but did provide him with some short-term warmth and nourishment for his body as well as his soul - as it had most likely been quite some time since he’d been the recipient of any form of care from another human being. The man would lower the window of his car and gratefully accept whatever my father brought him. All day the car would sit empty and every night the man would return to his “home,” which was barely a touch more comfortable than sitting exposed to the harsh elements outside. I don’t remember for how long this continued, but one day, as unexpectedly as the car had appeared, it suddenly vanished. We never saw the man again.
We have many collectors knocking at our door these days, some with unfortunate yet legitimate needs, and others with more questionable circumstances. But everyone walks away with something. There was a time many years ago that it became known that a certain collector in the neighborhood was using the funds she collected to buy illicit drugs, so the suggestion was made to provide her with cans of food rather than money. But sending her away empty-handed was never an option.
Friday is usually a big day for collectors in our neighborhood. On a recent Friday, with Shabbos coming in a little after 4 p.m., the collectors were up and at ‘em bright and early and rang our bell one after the other in quick succession. Maybe they were also hoping to get in as much collecting as possible before the forecasted rains began. My hands were deep in raw chicken when we heard yet another knock, so I sent my daughter to answer the door. Upon opening the door, she found a strikingly young, kippah-clad, English-speaking, disheveled man, who was more than happy to accept the money she’d handed him. But that wasn’t enough. He also asked to speak to me. When she told him I was busy, he pleaded with her. He was very hungry, he explained. My heart skipped a beat. People show up at our door collecting for medical bills, weddings, yeshivas, soup kitchens, youth groups, special needs programs, and just about every not-for-profit organization - but nobody ever claimed to be hungry at that precise moment. I’ve certainly heard far too many stories about the measly food rations during the Holocaust, young children risking their lives to smuggle food into the ghetto, and large families “lucky” enough to have a loaf of bread to share for eight days. I’ve learned about the unbearable conditions in Eretz Yisrael during the British Mandate when starvation was common and even claimed the life of Reb Aryeh Levin’s son. But at my doorstep? This was new. My potato kugel was still cooking in the oven but had reached the edible stage. As I cut a very generous piece of kugel and placed it on a plate, I was conscious of the wink I felt from Hashem. I had made a smaller kugel than usual that week since so few of us were home for Shabbos. But even with all my efforts to scale down, my daughter questioned why I had made such a big kugel. At the time I had no answer, but facing the hungry young man, the reason became clear. The young man polished off the kugel before I could blink an eye and immediately asked for more. When I handed him his second helping, I invited him to come inside and sit down, but he preferred to eat outside where the long-awaited rain finally began to trickle down from the sky. Once he finished the kugel, the young man asked if I had some chicken, meat, or any other ready-made food to give him. It was too early in the day for freshly-cooked Shabbos food, but I rummaged through my cabinets and offered him anything edible I could find. He wasn’t interested.
Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, the Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv and a child survivor of the Holocaust, who previously served as the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel as well as the chairman of Yad Vashem, once spoke about hunger in Africa. He said that he keeps a February 2007 newspaper clipping from an Israeli daily newspaper in his pocket at all times. The article published on page 21 states the statistics reported by the Chairman of the Committee of Health and Food at the United Nations. It states that 18,000 children, mainly from Africa and Asia, die of starvation every day. What was most amazing to him, even more than the astounding number, was that this article did not appear as the headline on the front page of the paper, but rather on page 21. “How is it possible that so many other news items are more important than this?” he asked. He stated that all we learn from history is that we didn’t learn anything from it. If this situation can exist in this day and age, then we truly have not learned the lessons from the past. Rav Lau asserts that we have to absorb the lessons from our history and tend to the needs of the hungry, even when they live in far-off countries.
Two years ago, we had a major egg shortage over Pesach and were beside ourselves, trying to figure out how to feed our families over a holiday that requires an extraordinary number of eggs. This past Yom Tov season, milk was the elusive treasure. Rare milk-sightings were blasted on WhatsApp groups. Low-fat milk has only recently returned to the shelves on a regular basis. At times, I get frustrated when I run out of an ingredient while I’m in the middle of cooking and sometimes the lines at the supermarket are longer than I would like. Food preparation isn’t always smooth sailing. But with all of the nuisances and annoyances, those of us who are fortunate enough to always have food to eat should not take it for granted. We should also remember that it is a privilege to be able to help those less fortunate, whether they are at our doorstep or far away.