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Echoes of Michael Jackson  #779

05/19/2023 05:03:20 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashat Barmidbar
Echoes of Michael Jackson

If you’ve spent most of your life living outside New York, visiting “the city” can be daunting.

And so, it was—about 20 years ago—when I began visiting New York in search of a rabbinical school that would be right for me.

Early one Monday afternoon, as I left the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) after a half day of touring and attending introductory classes, I noticed a woman walking behind me.

I later learned that she was a rabbi, who had exited JTS at about the same moment I did, and was on her way to catch the same downtown train.  We found ourselves standing next to each other on the platform as the crowded train pulled into the station. We entered and reached for the same pole.

Moments after the subway departed, we heard a voice from the other end of the car.

“Hello, my name is Marcus, and I am homeless. I’m going to perform some Michael Jackson songs for you, and I hope when I’m done, you’ll show your appreciation by filling my cup.”

My heart began to race. Over the years, I had seen many New York themed movies, and countless Law and Order episodes. I was unsure what would happen next.

And even though I had not exchanged a word with the JTS rabbi, I looked across at her, and asked, “I’m not from here. What is the story on this kind of thing? Should I support him when he comes around?”

Raising her head, the rabbi said:

“Listen, you don’t want that man’s job. Why is it people waste so much time philosophizing whether they should perform a simple act of kindness. Give him the damn dollar and move on.”

So, after four minutes of passable renditions of Billie Jean and Beat It, the two of us became part of only a few in the subway car to fill Marcus’ paper cup with dollar bills. Most importantly, we both looked him in the eye, and said “Thank you.”

That led to a conversation with the rabbi about rabbinical schools, which ultimately led me to AJR, the seminary which I eventually graduated from.

Perhaps equally important, I left the subway that day answering a question in the form of a challenge that had been posed to me by a mentor a few weeks earlier:

“Before you decide that you want to become a rabbi, decide that kind of rabbi you want to be.”

That evening, I reflected and concluded that I would become a pulpit rabbi, who would ultimately apply Torah to support optimism and hope.

Without that subway busker, I would never have engaged with the rabbi, who inspired me not just to select the right seminary, but also to choose the kind of rabbi I wanted to be. I thought of that homeless person as I reviewed this week’s Torah portion.

As we begin reading the fourth book of the Torah—the Book of Numbers—God instructs Moses to conduct a census of the Israelites, supposedly to determine how many males over age 20 could be mustered to form an army.

So, Moses sets up an extensive infrastructure to manage the count. I can picture him and his brother, Aaron, interviewing a cadre of census takers to oversee the count and, ultimately, report the results. 

And they conclude that there were 603,550 able bodied men prepared to fight.

From there, some biblical scholars expand the count to estimate how many Israelites were travelling together in the desert. Some assume there were a similar number of women over 20 years of age, plus children, seniors and others who could not fight. Some imagine the total at more than 3 million.

But a question emerges regarding the census. If God is so knowledgeable, why ask Moses to complete the count? Didn’t God know the answer?

And our Sages answer: God wanted each Israelite to feel that the counted—each stepping forward to express perhaps the most important word within all of Judaism—Hineni“Here I am.”

I am not a big fan of comedian Dave Chappell. His edgy comments towards transgender persons, and his slurs against Jews and other minorities are often filled with hate and bigotry—at minimum they are in bad taste.  But one comment he made last year on Saturday Night Live resonates with me.

He said, “I learned that there are two words in the English language that you should never say in sequence, and those words are 'the' and 'Jews.'  Never heard someone do good after they said that.”

Placing the word “the” in front of any nationality, religion or other socio-economic group never leads to good. It reduces our fellow human beings to stereotypes and statistics.

During World War II, Nazis attempted to erase the Jewish identity. Those condemned to concentration camps were stripped of their names, referred to only by the numbers tattooed on their arms.

That is why it is customary for us to refrain from counting people in a room. We are not just a group. We are an assembly of distinctive and unique souls.

The Book of Numbers inspires us to consider that every human being is born with a God-given set of unique gifts, skills and talents. And each one of us possesses the capacity to add something important to the world.

Too many mass shootings these days are perpetrated by those who suffer from the mental illness, feel they don’t matter, or do not have a voice. A 13-year-old I studied with this week told me that some high schools are holding workshops to help students recognize when someone near to them feels unseen or unheard.

And attempts are being made by students and teachers to help those self-perceived outsiders to feel that they do matter. That is a central lesson contained with week’s parashah. God knew that everyone counted, but perhaps millions of Israelites—barely out of slavery—did not.

And like the singer of the train—and the rabbi I met at the pole—one interaction, one conversation, one cringe-worthy rendition of Billie Jean can influence another human being—in turn granting that person the capacity to uplift others.

Earlier this month, I read, with sadness, of the passing of Jordan Neely, 30, who died being restrained by a passenger on a Manhattan subway train.  Neely, like Marcus, was known for his Michael Jackson impersonations. He was homeless, hungry, and recognized by the authorities as someone battling mental illness.

The matter is currently before the courts, but as I read the account of how Neely died, I thought about how many people these days feel alone and invisible. They are often referred to with the preface, “The.”

The Homeless, The Jews, The Blacks. What this week’s Torah portion reinforces the Jewish teaching that no one is a statistic.

Judaism teaches that each of us was put on this earth to fulfill a unique destiny—some with more opportunities than others. And—as the Jewish people tragically experienced during the Holocaust—no one should ever be, or feel, dehumanized.

From a Michael Jackson impersonator, to that random person we meet on the subway, our destinies as human beings are divinely intertwined.

Indeed, each of us deserves to be counted, but never referred to as a number.

For we are all precious in God’s sight

Shabbat shalom, v’kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Wed, February 21 2024 12 Adar I 5784