By Rabbi Fred V. Davidow
David Roskies, professor of Jewish literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary, has written, “Text and experience are reciprocally enlightening: Even as the immediate event helps make the ancient text intelligible, so in turn the text reveals the significance of the event.”
The truth of that statement became strikingly clear to me on Shabbat Shemot several years ago. I watched a video entitled “CNN Hero Narayanan Krishnan: A Companion to the Forgotten.”
Krishnan, born in Madurai, India, in 1981, received an education paid for by his parents. He became an award-winning chef with a five-star hotel group. Having been selected for an elite job in Switzerland, he wanted to make a quick visit to his family in his hometown to say goodbye before leaving for Europe.
The direction of his life changed in a moment.
“I finished my college here. I was working for Taj Group of Hotels Bangalore. I saw a very old man. He was eating his own human waste for hunger. I thought, ‘What is the purpose of my life? What I am going to do? In a star hotel I feed all my guests. Where in my hometown there are people living even without food.’ And I quit my job and I started feeding all these people from 2002.”
Krishna went to a nearby hotel and asked the kitchen staff what was available. He recalled, “They had idli, which I bought and gave to the old man. Believe me, I had never seen a person eating so fast, ever. As he ate the food, his eyes were filled with tears. Those were the tears of happiness.”
The video shows Krishnan and his helpers preparing vegetarian meals. Krishnan wakes every day at 4 a.m. and with his team prepares hot meals, loads them in a van and delivers them to the homeless in Madurai. The team travels about 120 miles a day. From 2003 to 2010, Krishnan served more than 1.2 million meals to the indigent and the elderly in his hometown.
“We feed the homeless, mentally ill destitute and the old people who have been left uncared, of the society. People are suffering for food. They don’t have food to eat. If you don’t give them food to eat, they will die of human hunger. I cut their hair, I give them a shave, I give them bath. For them to feel, psychologically, that they are also human being. There are people to care for them. They have a hand to hold, hope to live. Food is one part. Love is another part.
“So the food will give them physical nutrition. The love and affection which you show will give them mental nutrition. Brahmans are not supposed to touch these people, clean these people, hug these people, feed these people. Everybody has got 5.5 liters of blood. I am just a human being. For me, everybody the same. What is the ultimate purpose of life? It’s to give. Start giving. See the joy of giving.”
Reading Parashat Shemot, I am always struck by the similarity between Moses and Narayanan Krishnan.
Moses grew up in the royal household. He was, in effect, a member of a caste that scorned the menial Israelite slaves. Moses was sheltered from the world where his kinsmen suffered. Krishnan was a member of the Brahman caste, the highest class in Indian society. The lowest class was comprised of the pariahs, the untouchables. Moses received an education typical for the Egyptian aristocracy; Krishnan received an education that placed him in the position of preparing meals for the wealthy.
One day Moses saw an Egyptian taskmaster beating an Israelite slave and his compassion for the oppressed in one moment changed the direction of his life and set him on the path to rescuing his people.
One day Krishnan saw an old man eating his own excrement and the direction of his life was immediately changed. He set out on the course of feeding the destitute, of providing them not only with physical nutrition but also “mental nutrition.” As a Brahman, he was not supposed to “touch these people,” but he believed that his blood was no redder than the blood of the pariahs.
Moses and Krishnan “committed career suicide,” giving up a life of comfort and ease to help the lowly.
Both Moses and Krishnan experienced marker events. These events are not planned. They happen unexpectedly and the reaction of the beholder changes his life. Nothing ever after will be like what the person was envisioning for himself. We do not know the historicity of the events in the life of Moses, but the narrative tells a truth about human nature. What happened to Krishnan is historical.
The text about Moses and the experience of Krishnan are “reciprocally enlightening: Even as the immediate event helps make the ancient text intelligible, so in turn the text reveals the significance of the event.”
Rabbi Fred V. Davidow is the chaplain at the Glendale Uptown Home. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.