Neviim Tovim, blogs by Gillian Gould Lazarus

Just Giving and the Prophet Elijah

Posted on: January 21, 2019

In April 1990, my husband David was in the Royal Marsden Hospital in Sutton, enduring a course of chemotherapy called interleukin 2. According to the consultant oncologist, it was an expensive treatment. The NHS was willing to invest in saving a young man of forty-one but IL2 was aggressive and David was increasingly frail.

It was the first night of Passover. I made my way from North London to the Marsden, carrying an old-fashioned picnic basket in which I had packed some hard-boiled eggs, matzot, a shank bone, which features on a Passover table and a haggadah, the Passover seder prayer book.

In those days, I conceived a fear of traveling by underground, so I took a bus to Victoria Station, the overground to Sutton and then a taxi to the hospital.

David was in a cubicle in the Bud Flanagan ward. I saw at once that he looked yet weaker, depressed, in the valley of the shadow.

I told him about the picnic basket. He sighed. It was not of interest to him. So I sat beside his bed and after a while took the contents out of the basket. I began to read from the Haggadah. It included some psalms and I read aloud Psalm 130, which is known to Christians as De Profundis, in English ‘Out of the depths’and in Hebrew, Mi-ma’amakim.

My soul waits for the Lord
more than watchman for the morning

David stirred irritably and then sat up.

‘Is there any meat on that shank bone?’ he asked. I handed it to him and he began to chew on the mutton adhering to the bone.

‘It’s good,’ he said. He looked quite bright-eyed. We talked, I can’t remember of what, perhaps of our children or our plans for when David came home.

By ten-o-clock, I was in a taxi to Sutton Station which took me to Victoria and there, I made my way to the bus stop.

A burly, middle-aged man was sitting on the pavement, leaning against the outer wall of Victoria Station. I gave him a pound but he called out, in an agitated voice, ‘I haven’t got anywhere to sleep!’

His urgency reached me so I checked my purse and turned back.

‘If you give me back that pound, I’ll give you a fiver,’ I said.

Willingly he held out the pound coin and we did the exchange. Then I said ‘Would you eat some hard boiled eggs?’ and he nodded, so I gave him the eggs, the Passover beitzot from my basket.

Then my bus arrived.

Towards the end of Passover, David was still in hospital. I went to the synagogue and, in the sermon, the rabbi told a folk tale about the prophet Elijah, who is said to visit earth from time to time in the guise of a beggar. In the story, an old couple who showed generosity to Elijah were rewarded with a beautiful house. Elijah has a special relevance to Passover, and a glass of wine stands ready for him on the Seder table. The door is opened so that he may enter and drink the wine, to presage the coming of the Messiah. So far, Elijah has abstained, despite, I suppose, millions of earnest invitations.

I went to the hospital and found David looking much brighter. He said ‘I dreamed that I was home and you’d prepared a beautiful house for me.’

He did come home and the hospital ceased chemotherapy, the illness being managed with morphine and much help from the North London Hospice.

I always remember that beggar, named in my mind as Elijah and if a homeless person calls out to me, I try to give them something. I used to have direct debits for a couple of charities, Great Ormond Street being one and the other, I forget; then there was a time when I was strapped for cash and stopped my charitable direct debits. I preferred to make an ad hoc contribution to something like Children in Need or Red Nose Day, something that you didn’t have to keep up on a monthly basis.

Last year, there was a scandal involving some major UK charities which may have put off some donors. There is also a well known charity which is so partisan against Israel that they organize events on campuses for something they are pleased to call ‘Israel Apartheid Week.’

I am a little suspicious now of some large charities, unsure whether the money is used to feed the hungry or to provide toy rifles so that the students of Orcshire Metropolitan University can role play being bad Israelis and good Palestinians.

If a friend or relation does a run for charity – and they do, constantly – I make a small donation, out of respect for their efforts.

Meanwhile, I give my small change to Elijah, more visible on our streets than ever.

David died in July 1990. The number of his grave in the Western Synagogue Cemetery is 130.

More than the watchman for the morning,
More than the watchman for the morning.

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