“Mr. Goldberg, I’m sorry, but you broke our agreement. We cannot have you back anymore”
As told to Malkie Schulman by Rachel Cohen
Mr. Goldberg was a lonely old man, not completely normal, who worked in the local city park, picking up garbage. Sometimes, he’d find an old piece of clothing left by a homeless person and he’d bring it home, or worse, wear it. He had no friends, and his family, aside from warning him not to use the money in his bank account (presumably so they could inherit it when he died), had abandoned him.
My husband and I have a soft spot for people with nowhere to go and no one to love them. Mr. Goldberg was a sweet old man, and despite his bedraggled appearance and the strong odor that sometimes emanated from him, we welcomed him into our home almost every Shabbos. It’s true that we sometimes had to place him far away from our other guests because of the smell, but otherwise he was quite harmless.
Mr. Goldberg had lived in Brisk as a young child. His mother, he would tell us, was terribly upset about the haskalah movement there. He would hear her repeatedly say, “Where are the Yiddishe kinderlach?” The haskalah was strong in Brisk, and this had troubled his mother terribly. Consequently, when they moved to America, he and his mother took great pleasure watching the Jewish children board their school buses to yeshivah or camp every morning.
One Friday night, after the meal, Mr. Goldberg mentioned that he was feeling weak. I invited him to sleep over and handed him the pair of freshly laundered pajamas that we reserved for guests. After Mr. Goldberg left the next morning, I was horrified to see that the pajamas were crawling with body lice. Even worse, over the next few days, we found that our whole apartment was crawling with body lice. We had small children in the house, I was expecting, it was two weeks before Pesach, and we needed to move out for a few days while the house was fumigated. My parents, concentration camp survivors, were terrified of lice, and they couldn’t bear to risk having us stay with them. It was an enormous ordeal, but baruch Hashem, we found another place to stay and then went to my in-laws out-of-town for Yom Tov.
When we returned, we learned that Mr. Goldberg had been hospitalized for anemia. Apparently, body lice suck the blood of their host, which in extreme cases causes anemia. While he was still in the hospital, my husband and I and some other neighbors went to Mr. Goldberg’s apartment, had it fumigated, and cleaned it out. The apartment looked like it had never been cleaned — and it probably hadn’t, certainly not by Mr. Goldberg who’d been living there for years. There were bugs literally falling from the ceiling. We had to throw away almost everything in that apartment, including his clothes, which we replaced.
When Mr. Goldberg returned from the hospital, I explained to him that a lice infestation was serious business. I had small children and a newborn; I couldn’t go through it again. We told him that we’d be happy to continue welcoming him into our home as long as he would do his part to stay lice-free. That meant he’d come to us every Thursday night for a bath and so I could wash his dirty clothes. He agreed, and for the next nine months, he dutifully came every Thursday night, placed his dirty clothes in a garbage bag for me to wash, and took his bath. Afterwards, I’d hand him a clean set of clothes to return home in.
One Thursday night when I removed his shirt from the garbage bag, I found a huge louse staring at me. I was shocked, and I felt so betrayed — after all we had done for him!
That night, before he left, I said firmly, “Mr. Goldberg, I’m sorry, but you broke our agreement. We cannot have you back anymore.”
Now, many years later, I deeply regret my hasty reaction. My only excuse is that I was totally focused on the horror of a new infestation; I wasn’t thinking of the lonely, old, semi-retarded man who was incapable of not putting on the old shoes a homeless person had left in the park.
Mr. Goldberg never did come back. A few months later, he passed away. For some reason, we were not informed of his death. We heard afterwards that his burial was like a meis mitzvah — no one was there to pay last respects. That hurt a lot, and in the year after his death, I collected tzedakah l’illui nishmaso. I used the money to send needy Jewish children to camp because I knew how dear that was to him.
Meanwhile, our family had grown and we moved to a bigger apartment. In the basement of our new apartment building lived David, another mentally challenged person. Like Mr. Goldberg, David was ragged, disheveled, and unkempt. Like Mr. Goldberg, he became part of our family, joining us often for Shabbos meals.
Eventually we moved to another city. Two weeks after our move, my daughter saw a man on our porch. It was David, looking in through the window and grinning. We invited him in — and he moved in. He stayed for months, refusing to leave. He appropriated the guest room for himself, leaving his belongings there. He loved collecting things, especially seltzer bottles, and there were empty seltzer bottles and other kinds of junk strewn all over the room.
The situation was getting out of hand. We needed our privacy. We needed our guest room. We wanted to invite other guests, but David wouldn’t leave. My own parents wanted to visit, but David wouldn’t leave! My children (who in general enjoyed guests, even our more “interesting” ones) resented having David around all the time. We didn’t know what to do.
We finally decided to speak to a rav. The rav asked us to try to remember whether we had ever had a similar experience in our lives. I immediately thought of Mr. Goldberg and told the rav everything. When I finished, he told us that although we had done a wonderful mitzvah by adopting Mr. Goldberg and caring for him so lovingly, we had done wrong by abandoning him, as understandable as it was. Once you start a mitzvah, he explained, you have a responsibility to see it through. It was even possible that Mr. Goldberg had died of loneliness, and that we had inadvertently contributed to his death. The rav directed us to go to his kever with a minyan and recite a specific prayer asking for mechilah. Only then could we hope to be forgiven.
I felt so awful after talking with the rav. What were we thinking, cutting off all contact? When Mr. Goldberg visited, I always sent him home with food. I didn’t have to stop the food, I thought, even if I had to stop his visits. We could’ve called or visited him outside his house. We didn’t have to cut him out of our lives so suddenly and completely.
But it was too late now. All that was left for us to do was to go to Mr. Goldberg’s grave and beg forgiveness.
The grave was a depressing sight. It looked as forlorn as Mr. Goldberg must have felt when we locked him out of our home. There were no rocks on the headstone to indicate visitors, and the grass around it was overgrown. My husband stood before the kever, facing the minyan, and related our misdeed. Then he recited the special prayer requesting forgiveness and finally, the men responded by facing us and repeating mochul lach three times.
After we left, I had the sense that we had been forgiven. Especially now that Mr. Goldberg was in the place of true clarity, I knew he no longer harbored ill will. But it took longer for me to work out my own guilt for a mitzvah gone so wrong. I kept obsessing over my unjustified anger at him, believing he caught the lice again because he just didn’t care enough to try harder. I had forgotten that he really was mentally incapable of doing differently. Still, we returned home feeling sober but cleansed.
Two weeks later, without a word from us, David informed us he had gotten a job elsewhere and he was leaving. He packed up his seltzer bottles and his belongings and moved out. Although he did call us occasionally, he never returned to our home.
Rachel Cohen is a bookkeeper in Lakewood, New Jersey.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 877)
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