Sign In Forgot Password

WE Were All Strangers #615

02/21/2020 05:00:00 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

We Were All Strangers

A rabbi told me this story when I was a child:

Two men, a pauper and a store owner, were walking toward each other one morning on the main street of a small town.

Shalom Aleichem,” Shmuel, the pauper, said as he greeted Lazer.

Aleichem Shalom,” the store owner, Lazer, responded.

“I'm wondering whether you could help me out with a few rubles so I can eat today,” the pauper continued.

Lazer reached into his pocket, handed Shmuel five rubles, nodded, and continued on his way. The next day, at the same time, the two men, again, found themselves approaching each other.

But this time, Lazer abruptly crossed the street well in advance of their meeting, and the two continued on separate sides. Moments later, while the businessman was unlocking his shop door, the pauper walked into the synagogue and requested to see the Rabbi.

“What can I do for you, Shmuel?” asked the Rabbi.

“I would like to press charges against Lazer, the store owner,” said the pauper.

“What kind of charges?” responded the stunned Rabbi.

“I would like to charge Lazer with theft,” replied Shmuel.

“Theft!” shrieked the Rabbi. “What could Lazer have ever stolen from you?”

Later that day, after a Jewish court was hastily convened, the Rabbi received his answer. As the irritated and humiliated businessman sat in front of a tribunal of rabbis, the pauper laid out his case.

“Yesterday, when me met. We greeted each other as equals. We extended a Shalom Aleichem to each other, and Lazer provided me with some assistance. But today, Lazer deprived me of the opportunity to say, “Good morning.”

“I accuse Lazer of stealing my dignity.”

I vaguely remember that the story ends with the Rabbi sitting with both men. An apology is issued, they shake hands, drink some vodka, and mutual dignity is restored.

That story, has always inspired me toward an understanding of how Judaism places human dignity above social status. The Jewish concept known as Tzedakah is roughly translated as “charity.” But the word actually stems from the root Tzedek — justice.

Sometimes we have more, sometimes less. But, a society must maintain a reasonable balance between the two. This week's Torah portion tackles the idea of Tzedek — justice — as it examines Mishpatim, the “rules” of Judaism.

In last week's Torah reading, we received the 10 Commandments. This week, we are introduced to more than 50 additional laws — most of them dealing with how human beings should interact. Specifically, the text explores the consequences of one person directly or indirectly harming another.

The Torah tells us that the damaged party is entitled to restitution: “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” While it is unlikely that anyone ever poked out another's eye or knocked out someone's tooth, we are taught that restitution can rebalance the scales.

However, there is one principle which is not up for negotiation.  The Torah is adamant about the responsibility of every society to protect the family that lacks a bread winner — or the stranger.

The Torah tells us twice not to kill, but 36 times to be kind to the widow, orphan or the stranger. Why this emphasis? Because we remember.

The memory of oppression, persecution and slavery remains embedded with the DNA of the Jewish people.

We know what it is like to suffer, to be regarded as the outsider, to be blamed.

Our tradition says, “Take that spirit of empathy and do whatever we reasonably can to elevate another human being — both materially and spiritually.”

While Lazer may have materially lifted Shmuel for a day with a handful of rubles, the shopkeeper's theft of dignity could have spiritually impoverished Shmuel for a lifetime.

Notes the Etz Chaim Chumash as it comments on this week's Torah reading, “We are to treat aliens, widows, orphans and other marginal members of society as we would want to be treated in similar circumstances.”

It adds, “The decency of a society is measured by how it cares for the least powerful members.” Indeed, during these fractured times, we need to ask ourselves, which edge of the divide do we stand on: the one of suspicion, mistrust and cynicism or the one of optimism, support and Tzedek?

Kindness and empathy are concepts that have come under attack in recent years. Practicing thoughtfulness and compassion is a personal decision each of us makes.

But let us be clear where the Torah stands: It reminds us three dozen times that we don't really have a choice: We must be mindful of those who live in “extreme poverty.”

It is natural to ask how those in need came to be where they are, but once we have completed this exercise, it is important to answer the question: Does God distinguish between color, religion, orientation or social status?

And, should we blame entire groups or nationalities based on the actions of a handful? Can we, as Jews, relate? The Torah reminds us that, “we are all descendants of Adam and Eve.” Each of us is a child of God, and each of us has faced times when we were in need. How did we feel?

What did our parents or grandparents face as they walked off the boat with only a suitcase and a heart full of dreams? How much good can support through a charity really do?

How much are those few rubles really worth? Indeed, how much hope and dignity can they instill?

Thirty six times. What is the Torah trying to say?

Are our hearts truly open, or have we fallen victim to the cynicism of our times?

Shabbat Shalom, v’kol tuv (with all goodness),

Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Tue, June 2 2020 10 Sivan 5780