I will never forget the experience. I was watching a video made for teachers to help them understand what it is like to live with learning issues. It featured a group of real teachers as students while an expert in learning disabilities taught the class. For one of the exercises, the instructor gave a short speech using words that we would all know, but when put together seemed meaningless to most. In another exercise, he asked the teachers to identify an object based upon just a small piece of a picture. When they were unable, he asked them to try harder and focus, which, of course, did not change their success. After watching the video, I truly had a new appreciation of what individuals with special learning needs endure. I understood better what it is like to stick out or not fit into a classroom setting and I had a clue as to the discomfort that children or adults who struggle with learning challenges must face on a daily basis.
What does it feel like to be Black or Hispanic in a country that maintains a Eurocentric mentality? Whether it is media images, school curricula or political and social power, minorities can feel either invisible or conspicuous; in either case they end up on the outside. We have made great progress in that we have outlawed discrimination, but we have not eliminated it. In 1959, John Howard Griffin in the book Black Like Me learned through personal experience what it meant to be black. It was only by medically altering the color of his skin that Griffin could comprehend what it meant to be a Black-American. Most of us would claim not to be prejudiced, but I would venture to say that many of us still harbor basic uncertainty about some minorities. How many people react with fear when they find themselves in an elevator with men they think may be gang members?
Not long ago many whites in America not only saw blacks as being different, but also saw them as inferior. It is hard to imagine that only fifty years ago our country was willing to accept the idea that black children should not learn with whites. The fear and bigotry of whites was formalized in the 1896 Supreme Court decision of Plessy vs. Ferguson. The principle of “separate but equal” articulated by the court, legally validated segregation until 1954. Last year we celebrated the sixtieth anniversary of the Supreme Court decision of Brown vs. the Board of Education; however, it was only the Civil Rights Act and the threat of withholding federal funds that forced the issue of integration more than ten years later.
As Jews, we are very proud of the fact that we were at the forefront of the civil rights movement, including supporting and creating the NAACP. Those civil rights leaders did not help Black-Americans because they pitied a poor, inferior race. They got involved in the civil rights movement because our tradition teaches us that we are all made in the image of God.
During World War II, Japanese-Americans were interred; and, in the aftermath of 9/11, many people of Middle Eastern origins whether Jewish, Christian, or Muslim encountered prejudice by those who assumed that they were potential terrorists. This is our tendency, to turn people into strangers.
So prevailing is the fear of strangers or the unknown that we have a term for it- xenophobia. I remember the first time I heard it used in synagogue. Everyone I knew went home after services to look up the word. Fear of the unknown is legitimate; we should be uncomfortable with the unknown. However, when that discomfort causes us to isolate people and turn them into strangers, then it is no longer a private matter. When our own inadequacies cause us to make other people feel deficient; then it is wrong.
Even the term estrangement automatically implies a distant, detached relationship. There are two ways in which we turn people into strangers. The first is an overt or subtle form of discrimination in which someone is ridiculed or perhaps just looked at in a way that makes them feel inferior. This can even happen unintentionally.
Another form of estrangement is when people are completely ignored and made to feel invisible. I am sure we have all had moments when we felt invisible to those around us. We may try to join a group and then we are ignored as if we were not even there. That is the feeling of the outsider.
Why do we estrange people? Because we don’t like people who are different. We are more comfortable with our kind. To associate with someone different than us forces us to go outside our comfort zone. It requires us to understand their differences and to embrace them even though they are different.
I have noticed a growing trend that disturbs me. It is a change in communal and political discourse. Instead of engaging in respectful debate on issues and ideas; we have reverted to name calling and dismissal of people and ideas. All too often, people have stopped listening to those with whom they disagree. People are very happy to tell you what they think, but then they have no interest in listening to anyone who doesn't see it their way. In their passion, they write off those who see things differently so they do not have to listen. I have witnessed this happening in our community and it saddens me. What happened to civility? Judaism teaches respect for those of differing opinions not self-righteous indignation. If we cannot model proper behavior in the treatment of those who are part of our community; how can we ever expect to change anything in the broader world?
How do we teach our children to deal with someone who is different? Someone who challenges our comfort zone? I believe that the attitudes and actions of children are a reflection of our society. They are the unfiltered, uncensored mirrors of what is taught in the media and at home. Just think of how cruel children are about someone who they consider different. We try to teach our children “sticks and stones,” but we know how hurtful words can be. If our child is the perpetrator, do we tell them not to say things like that or do we explain to them the hurt they may be causing?
Most people don’t tell their children to see the humanity in those who are different; instead we teach them not to stare. We think it is the polite way to raise our children. Yet, when we look away we run the risk of making these people non-existent. We have all averted our eyes from someone who has been disfigured by an accident or has been physically affected by a birth defect. We have pretended not to see the homeless or mentally ill wandering the streets of our cities.
We, as Jews, know better than most what it is like to be a stranger. After all, the Torah reminds us over and over that we were once strangers in the land of Egypt. In addition, we have been treated like the stranger in many of the places we have lived. The Torah commands us “v’ahavta et ha ger,” we are to “to love the resident alien or stranger.” This is one of only three times that the Torah actually commands us to love:
Love the Lord your God
Love your neighbor as yourself
Love the stranger
It is easy to understand the command to love God, but what about the stranger and our neighbor? I believe that the ultimate goal of loving the stranger is to turn them into our neighbor. Adversely, when we don’t love our neighbor we turn him or her into a stranger. How we treat those closest to us and those we would estrange, have a profound impact on our society.
Who are the strangers in our midst? The ger is somebody who lives in our community, but who is different than us. I know it is not easy to interact with someone, when we are uncertain how to communicate, or what to say. Too often we choose silence and avoidance but we have an obligation to confront our fears and uncertainties. Not too long ago I was waiting at the doctor’s office. As I sat down I noticed a man facing me whose body was covered in the deep purple, oddly blotched skin of a burn victim. His arms were covered with the type of pressure bandages utilized to help in the healing process and even his face bore the scars of his ordeal. He was lowering himself slowly into his chair. What should have taken one second took ten. The effort and pain of this simple body movement was clearly evident. My initial response was not to look, lest I be accused of staring. Dealing with this struggle personally, I decided to look him in the eyes and said, “It looks like that hurts.” He nodded, “every time I do it, I’m stretching the skin.” I began to talk with him and then his wife. I found out that he had been in a terrible explosion. They owned a tanning salon. A gas leak resulted in an explosion. He was thrown through the air; much like we see in the movies. Only in the movies, people get up without a scratch; in the real world, as I found out from him 12 surgeries and a great deal of time are required in the healing process. I imagine that this man wakes up every morning grateful for the life he has, but also cognizant of the fact that he is horribly scarred. Most people avoid looking at him, because it makes them feel uncomfortable and in the process we turn people like him into strangers.
Dr. Rachel Remen, who has been at the forefront of holistic healing for decades, tells the story of a Holocaust survivor who was diagnosed with cancer and was attending one of her wellness retreats. On the first day it was apparent that Yitzak was not comfortable with all the hugging that took place at the end of the group sessions. In his words, “Vat is all dis huggy-huggy? Vat is dis luff the strangers? Vat is dis?” But he let them hug him anyway. During the following days, Yitzak became more comfortable sharing his dreams, anxieties, and hopes. One day when Dr. Remen asked him how things were going, he told the group that things were better since he had spoken with God. He then proceeded to tell the group that he had walked along the beach and asked God about everything that was happening to him. “What did he say?” asked Dr. Remen. “Rachele,” Yitzak began, “I say to God, is it okay to luf strangers? And God says, ‘Yitzak vat is dis strangers? You make strangers. I don’t make strangers.”
Long ago, the rabbis asked, “why in the beginning did God create Adam alone, instead of many people at one time?” The answer… so that nobody could say, “my father is better than yours.” The message of the Torah is that we are all equal; all descendants of Adam- there are no strangers, because we are all related. Today celebrates the creation of the world. According to the rabbis, Rosh Hashanah marks the sixth day of creation- the day on which Adam was created. Adam was not Jewish. According to the Torah, there will be no Jews for twenty generations- until Abraham and Sarah. Rosh Hashanah is the acceptance of all people as equals in the eyes of God. Acceptance does not come through pity or through the feeling that we are helping someone in need. Treating those who are different should not be a social action project that makes us feel better about ourselves. It should be the way we act and do every single moment of our lives.
The goal of loving the stranger is not to induce sympathy or pity. It is a realization that only when we understand that each of us is made in the image of God are we are able to truly appreciate God’s creation. Leave it to the rabbis to create a blessing to be recited upon seeing someone who is visibly different in appearance. Whether it is someone unusually tall, short, heavy, thin, or in any way physically different. We are commanded to recite the blessing, “Baruch atah Adonai elohaynu melech ha’olam meshane ha’briyot- Blessed Are You Lord our God who differentiates creation.” When we acknowledge that God made us different, then we can see God’s image residing in all of us. We are all different, and once we realize that, we just become one of those different people, each of us made in the image of God and deserving of love and respect.
On Yom Kippur, we will ask forgiveness of our sins. “The sin we have committed against You consciously or unconsciously, and the sin we have committed against You openly or secretly. The sin we have committed against You in our thoughts, the sins we have committed against you with our words . . . and the sin we have committed against You by hurting others in any way.” It is wrong to create differences between people that make them strangers. Every person has something to enrich our lives if we just let them teach us. Life is about giving people chances; it is about going beyond our own limitations so that we don’t limit others. We read in the prayerbook each week, “When will redemption come? When we grant others the rights we expect for ourselves.”
Let me finish with a prayer written by Rabbi Naomi Levy:
Teach us, God, to treasure the differences that distinguish one person from another. Fill us with the strength to overcome senseless fear and hatred.
Open our hearts to the radiance that shines forth from every human soul. Inspire us to shed our apathy; remind us that it is our obligation to be responsible for one another.
Teach us to see each other through Your eyes God. In your eyes all people are equally loved, equally precious.
Bless us all, God, with compassion with kindness, and with peace.
And let us say, “amen.”