Once a year I drive the streets with a team of volunteers looking for the homeless as part of the annual homeless count coordinated by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority or LAHSA. (Full disclosure: I am a Commissioner of LAHSA) We gather at night at my synagogue Valley Beth Shalom and spread out around the valley where we live. In teams we drive the streets searching the sidewalks, the alleys and the parking lots for people.
People – flesh, blood and soul – who sleep between the dumpsters; who cower in cars or under awnings. Real human beings. Someone’s child, someone’s family, someone’s neighbor – made in the image of God.
As I drove that night, it was hard not to lose hope. Los Angeles, a city that draws some the most beautiful and successful people in the entire world, is also home to the largest unsheltered population of people in our country. This year alone, my county saw a 12% rise in people experiencing homelessness, bringing the total to nearly 60,000.
Just to give you a perspective, Dodger Stadium can hold 56,000 fans. Imagine going to the World Series and every single fan in the stands – every last one – is homeless. That would still not cover the 5,000 other homeless people outside the stadium who are also sleeping on the pavement.
On the other hand, Staples Center, where the Clippers and the Lakers play, has a capacity of 21,000 people. The county and city of LA have successfully housed over 21,600 people. That is a whole lot of people. The numbers are staggering. And for every person who was lifted up, two fell down.
Hope is hard to come by these days. When I speak with the homeless, it’s clear that some have lost hope. They feel abandoned and alone. Some have given up on themselves.
After all, it is imagination that makes us most human. To imagine the future. To dream. To aspire. But when you’ve lost everything, whether it’s your fault or not, you can lose that soul-filled capacity to imagine. You can lose the vision of a world different than your own.
You can lose the future.
You don’t have to be homeless to feel abandoned or alone. I work with so many successful people who live in big houses who feel abandoned. They have big bank accounts but their soul is bankrupted by anxiety, depression and stress. Your Instagram might say you have a wonderful outer life and still be paralyzed by panic attacks and fighting against despair everyday.
To lose the future is a universal feeling. Success does not immunize your soul from feeling like you are a failure. When you lose the future, you can turn inwards and away from the world.
If you believe you are alone, then your imagination will tell you that you are alone. If you believe in despair then you will despair.
When you abandon the future, you feel abandoned
Whether you live in a mansion or in a tent, your soul is the same. When you lose hope, a part of the soul goes missing.
In this week’s Torah portion, Naso, God upends the story of ourselves. This week in our Torah reading we travel deeper into the wilderness. The Book of Numbers, or in Hebrew, the Book of Bamidbar – the wilderness, is neither Sinai nor the Promised Land. A world of the “inbetween.” A world of uncertainty. A world where there is no safety beyond your encampment, no light beyond that of the tabernacle, and nothing but an endless, parched desert stretching in all directions. Into the wilderness we enter, where hope is as fragile as the spirit itself.
Here, at the desert’s edge, Aaron the High Priest, rises to face the congregation of Israel – this people, a huddled mass of refugees and former slaves who have no home. Aaron is not certain of what is to come, yet on God’s command he raises his hands and utters one of the most immortal passages of the Torah:
May the LORD bless and protect you.
May the LORD’s face shine down upon you and give you grace.
May the LORD lift up God’s face upon you and grant you peace.” (Numbers 6:24-26).
When the future is on the line, God’s blessing flips the script.
Where you feel exposed, you are protected. Where you feel the harshness of the world you feel God’s grace caress your cheek. Where you feel you lost your way in the darkness, there is a light to show you the way. Three lines, three moments, three blessings to seize the future.
A single blessing can recapture your imagination and give it back to you. Your world can change when someone raises their hands and lifts you up. The world is only changed for the better by those who believe it can change. Justice and mercy are possible only where they are imagined to be so. By giving you back your imagination, a blessing can change everything.
The rabbis say that God’s greatest protection is against the part of ourselves that tells us to give up. To keep the evil voice – the one that says that you are only an accident, that says you do not deserve love – at bay. (Bamidbar Rabba 11:5). At the moment of your greatest despair, it is as if God says:
If you do not believe in yourself, If you don’t believe in Me,
Will you let Me believe in you?
If you don’t feel blessed, would you let Me bless you?
God does not make peace for you, God shows you the way to peace. God does not guarantee your life, but gives you the imagination to hope. Don’t give up because God won’t give up on you. You are never alone when you are in the covenant.
God cannot make your life better, that is our job as a community and your job as an individual. But God can restore your soul so that you can seize the future. A place to aspire. To dream, to love.
Do not abandon the future. We all must seize the future together.