Parashat Vayakhel

Table For Two

Our tables, symbolic altars, become tools in our quest for sacredness when we share them with the poor and marginalized.

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New York of the mid-1980s was a beautiful place to be. Gentrification brought cafes, bistros and bookstores up and down the Upper West Side, Columbus Avenue and Broadway. Spring saw this neighborhood at its finest. Cafes would bring tables out on the sidewalk and every block was filled with diners.

But at the end of each café's sidewalk umbrella, a much crueler story was unfolding. The homeless population was exploding in size. Streets were filled with men and women asking for money and food if they were sober enough to do so. If not, they slept ten feet from your sidewalk table for two.

I knew a man named Timmy, a graduate student at Columbia who was not much of a café goer, but whose heart broke for the people living on the street. He rebelled against the sidewalk café tables by taking his own table, a supermarket cart, into the streets. Every night, Tim would cook a 50-gallon vat of soup and slap together a box of sandwiches and walk the streets of the upper West Side, offering street people to join him in a decent supper.

I was 19 and I thought Timmy was the greatest person I had ever met. Certainly, he was greater than many of my professors, sitting at Café Boccaccio, with their backs turned to the street.

The Story of Mar Ukba

In later years, as I became a student of the Talmud, I found the story of a woman much like Timmy, who welcomed street people at her table. The Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Ketubot 67b) tells the story of Mar Ukba, a third-century rabbi and his wife. They were in the habit of secretly donating money to a poor man in their neighborhood.

One day, to protect their anonymity, they fled from the poor man and jumped into a furnace (where else?) which had just been extinguished. Mar Ukba's feet immediately began to burn, but not his wife's. She received spiritual protection unavailable to him. "Your gifts are too private," she explained. "I am always at home and poor street people come to see me. I invite them in and we sit at the table together." Mar Ukba’s wife was a third-century Timmy.

This week's Torah portion, Vayakhel, tells the story of Moses and the children of Israel building the Mishkan (the Tabernacle) in the desert and all the vessels and structures it required. For centuries, the Mishkan and later the Beit ha-Mikdash (the Temple which stood in Jerusalem) served as the spiritual center of the Jewish people. It was destroyed in 586 B.C.E., rebuilt, and destroyed again in 70 C.E. In its absence, rabbis, prophets, mothers and shoemakers have dreamt of its return and the spiritual sustenance it brought.

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Rabbi Phil Miller

Rabbi Phil Miller is the vice president of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Baltimore. He attended Yeshiva University in New York City and previously was the director of the 92nd Street Y Bronfman Center for Jewish Life.