Submitted to dVerse OLN. This was previously posted for Poetry Potluck. As I re-read it, I see there’s work to be done on meter, but I hope the message reaches home. At this time of the year, I’m so aware of homelessness. This morning, walking the dogs along the river, I ran across a couple of homeless men. I understand that they often set up campsites down by the Truckee, under the overpass. Earlier, it was 21 degrees.
Walking down the road I saw a man in tattered clothes.
I couldn’t help but wonder what had led to his defeat.
Tell me, if you would, about this life that you have chosen,
or did it choose you to live like this, upon the street?
I handed him a buck or two and said, “Here, take a seat.”
It was a rusted old park bench on which we hunkered in to meet.
You’re curious, my boy, he said, why do you want to know?
I want to understand you, sir, to see what makes you so.
That money that I gave to you, I know you’ll give to others.
I wonder, how do you survive while giving to your brothers?
A smile broke across the wrinkled landscape of his face,
the pain I’d seen inside his eyes seemed suddenly erased.
You may not really want to hear the story I will tell,
it happened many years ago in a place not far from hell.
The name you’ve heard—‘twas Auschwitz, a camp they took us Jews
the horrors that surrounded me tempted me to choose
to take my own life ere they could subject me to a death
without the grace of dignity. I was so eager to go.
But then some words came tumbling from the darkness of my mind
Words spoken by a holy man I heard in years behind.
The teacher’s voice was strong, it traveled straight into the core
of all I understand of God, of what we’re living for.
Do you know how much good can be done in Auschwitz late at night?
How hope can be a gift to those who tremble in their fright?
And what I learned back then—the truths that saved me from despair—
I carry them within my soul, there’s so much need to care.
So I refuse to see my life as a symbol of defeat.
Do you know how much good, my son, awaits me in that street?
The old man stood and shook my hand and left me with his smile
I sat, transfixed, upon that bench for quite a while.
Now I withhold my judgment when I see a homeless guy
and wonder still at wealth within that money cannot buy.
The anecdote related in this poem is derived from a story related by Rabbi Schlomo Carlebach. I read it in “The Oracle of Kabbalah” by Richard Seidman. This book deals with the hidden meaning underlying the Hebrew Aleph Beit.