As my beloved frost dampens the ragweed pollen and the days sigh up and down with light warmth, my paleo-wardrobe makes its annual appearance. That hoodie with the logo no one remembers anymore. That long-sleeve from the high school production of “Fiddler on the Roof” in 1998. At least the remaining threads of atoms that comprised my old flannels have succumbed to proton decay.
But “Fiddler,” that was fun. I still know most of the songs and who played Grandma Tzeitel, because she was that good at being spooky. I definitely know my lines, since there were only two.
I played the elderly town beggar Nachum, making my appearance early, during the musical number “Tradition.” I was to raise my arms in appeal and cry out “alms for the poor!” Then there was a bunch of filler material until near the end, when I had another line that lit the powder keg of tension, something like, “Even my mother had more compassion than you Goyim!” Maybe. In any case, my role clearly furnished the entire play with meaning since my character bookended all the so-called action. What is a mere pile of meat and veggies without bread, after all? Not a sandwich. I made “Fiddler” more digestible for the audience. Maybe. That role was also the most recent, well, only, time in my life I have worn a beard.
Now about those “alms for the poor.” I distinctly remember the director spending an inordinate amount of practice time trying to get me to say that line the exact way she heard it in her head. Never mind arranging 50 chorus members in coordinated movements. And worry not about sight lines for the main characters. No, we need to hit this one line three times in two different rehearsals. You, Nahum, stand here, raise your arms like this, and say, “Alms for the poor!”
I made the mistake of trying. “Alms for the POOOOR!”
“No, like this: ALMS for the poooor!”
“ALMS for the POOOOOOOOR!”
“Agh! No, ‘AAHHLMZ for the pooor.’”
“Uh… like this, ‘AAAAHLms for the POOR.’?”
I thought she was going to tear her hair out. At least that would have meant I could have assembled a more life-like beard for the show. Anyway, rehearsal, like the show, had to go on.
This fall, many years later, in one of those seemingly-random moments of epiphany, it suddenly occurred to me what the issue was. The director wanted me to emphasize the “alms” part. She saw Nachum as a known member of the community going about his usual role of begging, for which the key word was “alms.” To her, seeking donations was the proper introduction for this character during the play’s introductory song.
I, on the other hand, for reasons obscure to me at the time, was locked into emphasizing the word “poor.” I was appealing to the compassion and justice of the townspeople. Surely they would care about me, the beggar, and the alms would follow. Even if I as Nachum were overlooked, perhaps the existence of the poor would move them to charity of heart and wallet.
So what was the important noun in the phrase? The object to be given or the person to whom it would be given? Was the relationship of Nachum to the people of Anatevka about the passing of a few coins or about Nachum as one of them?
At a broader level, we can recognize that it’s quite easy to deal with alms, but that’s not the same thing as relating to the poor.
Maybe this is part of Jesus’ point when the disciples complain about the costly perfume poured out on His feet during dinner (Matthew 26:6-13). They’re concerned about the product and the waste of value. But Jesus, verse 10, draws attention to the woman whom the disciples have not much noticed until she makes an economic blunder. They wring their hands about the alms, but they have not bothered to reach those same hands out to the poor. And even if the treasurer lets a few denarii affix themselves his sticky fingers (John 12:6), the disciples can buy a comfortable distance from the poor.
Where is your focus? On the alms or the poor? On the what or the whom?
With regard to the what, it is much easier to debate the balance of fairness when we do not know the people who need it or demand it. We can deal with objects instead. Objects, even abstract concepts like justice, can be controlled and defined firmly. Things put up less resistance than people. Opponents get labeled and become things. For example, we can meet calls for representation of the under-represented by demonstrating that representation is available under the current system, so there is no problem with the structure. The thing is fine, so people become objectified as “the problem.”
But what about the whom? In this record year for Atlantic hurricanes, I don’t know anyone who fled the swamps or coast of Louisiana, but I have known a few people and communities along the jungled coasts of Central American countries. I can confess when my compassion was more strongly activated.
When I think about immigration, I can picture Alex in Honduras, whom we urged not to go north, but who was desperate to provide better and expensive medicine for his ailing mother. Or the traumatized couple from Western Africa, whose children remain in a war zone while their cases are “in process.” Or the two teens whom I tried to mentor one summer while their parents worked long hours in Michigan blueberry fields.
During recent weeks, I was joyful and relieved about good vaccine news. Yet I surprised myself with my sudden worry about the ethics of vaccine delivery and timely access because I can’t avoid thinking about the families I’ve met in places that don’t have a Walgreens on every corner.
What about your whats and your whoms? When you declare your courageous stances on The Moral Issues, with whom do you relate that has actually been in the middle of the issue? How well do you know them? Do you know them better than by name or the house they live in? Have you shared jokes, probed their spirituality, or heard their dreams for life? Do you really know why they have the life or job or home or family they do? Have you been a safe enough person for them to tell you?
All this is to say that relationships matter, and in a polarized nation in which we all want our particular “what,” we won’t be able to get it right until we work better on the whom. If we live in geographic or ideological neighborhoods composed of people who are mostly like us, it’s difficult to know other, different, people as more than distant objects. Once people are objectified, it is far easier to reject instead of relate.
If we do bother to relate to the vulnerable, we should beware the trap of sending alms once in a while. That may mean we don’t spend enough time to be affected, let alone changed, by the gifts of a relationship that challenges what we already “knew” was true. No, we need to know people more than we know things.
Thus, the tragedy of “Fiddler on the Roof” isn’t called “A Roof With A Fiddler On It.” And, since the beggar in “Fiddler on the Roof” is named Nachum, which means “comfort,” maybe I had the line right after all.
The poor you’ll always have with you, Jesus said. Maybe because we get hung up on the alms.
 Do NOT cite this blog in your future scientific articles purporting to confirm Grand-Unified Theories of particle physics, let alone the 10^31-year proton half-life. Governments and the scientific establishment will not like that they spent billions of kopeks to learn what my closet already knew.