How much do humans need – and how much can we
do for – each other? A 2624-year-old prophecy teaches us
a timeless lesson in the power we have to help heal one
Allow me to share with
you two stories, defining episodes about human dignity that left an indelible
impression on me.
Quite a few years ago,
maybe nine, I was giving a class on the topic of unconditional love. Conditional
love is driven by ulterior motives, and is therefore subject to change: If
the motive is no longer fulfilled, the love wanes in direct proportion. Unconditional
love, by contrast, is unwavering because it is not determined by mercurial
As I was speaking, a gentleman
sitting to my right began to mutter. “Absolutely right,” he said. “The only
unconditional love is the love you get from your pet dog.” His voice got louder
and more aggressive. “Human love can never be trusted. People will always
disappoint you, but your dog will always love you, unconditionally. When you
come home after a hard day, your dog will greet you at the door, lick you
and always accept you. Human love is unpredictable, always changing, always
with strings attached.”
The man became increasingly
passionate, to the point that he was almost frothing at the mouth. ‘Yes,”
he raved on, “humans can never be trusted. The only love that is unconditional
is the one from your pet.” Clearly, the issue touched a deep chord in this
The rest of the class,
however, was quite annoyed. People tried to silence him. Some snickered, others
laughed, while others got angry. One woman spoke out at him, with a dismissive
voice, “We didn’t come to hear you talk about your dog. We came to hear the
Rabbi. Why don’t you just shut up with this dog nonsense. Stop raving like
I’ll never forget the
look in his eyes, as he glared at her and hissed with an anguished, trembling
voice: “You… You are so shallow…”
The entire class looked
at me waiting, watching how I would respond. I could have easily dismissed
the individual. It would even have been possible to get a good laugh at his
expense. But I instantly remembered something that took place many years ago,
when I wore a younger (and slimmer) man’s clothes.
A man came to see me and
told me his life story, which included the horrible abuse that his alcoholic
father would subject him to. To avoid the blows of a baseball bat, the young
boy would run outside and sleep near the doghouse, where he would be comforted
by the love of his pet dog…
The man told me, “I learned
love from… a dog. That was the first true love I ever experienced.”
I was utterly stunned.
It was the first time I had ever heard about real abuse. I just couldn’t believe
it. But I never forgot the story. So now, when this gentleman was carrying
on about the unconditional love of a dog, I said to myself, “you never know
where people find love. Never, ever judge anyone especially when it come to
the emotional realm.”
So I calmly said to the
man at the class: “Listen, this week we’re talking about human love. We’ll
designate another time to discuss canine love.” Everyone was surprised that
the man responded with respect, “Thank you. I understand.”
After the class, another attendee, slipped me a handwritten note, which I
read after I returned home. “I have been coming to
your class for two years,” she wrote. “I have
learned many things and been very inspired. But tonight
I learned the most important lesson of all: The respect
one must show to other people, no matter how strange they
may behave. You have healed me tonight from my greatest
wound: The lack of trust in human dignity.”
A few months later, the
gentleman called me as well, and said that he wants to thank me for not dismissing
him. “Your validation of me has given me strength to deal with some very difficult
challenges I am facing. Over the years, I have always been dismissed as weird
when I would strongly react, in my own bizarre way, to issues around love.
That night something changed. The fact that you did not invalidate me, that
you actually allowed me to be strange, opened some significant doors. I now
believe in some new possibilities.”
Story number two.
At our weekend retreat
on Shabbat Nachamu several years ago, one woman was clearly unhappy about
almost everything. She didn’t like the lodging, the food, the wash stations,
the people, the kiddush, etc. etc. None of the staff were able to appease
her, so the challenge was delivered to me. I tried to speak with her, to no
avail. What I did recognize, however, was that something else was bothering
her. So I simply allowed her space and didn’t argue.
Next morning before the Torah reading I spoke about Nachamu.
“Nachamu” is the name of the Shabbat, based on the opening of the Haftorah
read on the Shabbat that follows Tisha B’Av, the saddest day of the Jewish
calendar, which commemorates the destruction of the Two Holy Temples. The
word means “comfort.” G-d tells the prophet, “Nachamu Nachamu Ami, - Comfort,
comfort my people… speak to the heart of Jerusalem.”
The Midrash explains (Pesikta Rabsi, 30) that the Haftorahs
in the coming weeks follow one sequence. G-d first sent His messengers, the
prophets, to console Jerusalem and the people. “But Zion said (in next week’s
Haftorah): G-d has forsaken me; My G-d has forgotten me.” Zion is not comforted
by the consolation of the prophets. The messengers returned and told G-d (in
the Haftorah of week three): “Afflicted, storm tossed, one is not consoled”
by our comforting words. G-d then replied (in week four): “Anochi nochi hu
menachem’chem, - I, I am He who comforts you.” Not messengers, but I – yes
I myself – comfort you. Why? Because the law is, “if a fire gets out of control…the
one who started the fire must make restitution” (Exodus 22:5). Since G-d is
the one that “started the fire” that destroyed the Temple, G-d Himself comes
to comfort on the loss (Pesikta Rabsi, 30).
The question I posed was
this: If the people were right in being dissatisfied with the consolation
of the messengers, why didn’t G-d Himself come to console the people in the
first place, and instead sent messengers?
I suggested that perhaps
the reason for this is because in sending human messengers to console the
people (Nachamu Nachamu Ami) G-d instilled in humans the power to console
each other. G-d obviously has the power to console us, and He does so later.
But the big question is whether we have the power to console and give strength
to each other? Nachamu Nachamu Ami clearly states that we were given this
This may be compared to
the Talmudic statement regarding healing: A specific verse in the Torah (“”v’rapeh
ye’rapeh lo”) declares that G-d has given humans (doctors) the Divine permission
and power to heal.
Perhaps this was a necessary
step to begin healing and repairing the baseless hatred, which was the cause
of the destruction of the second Temple. [Though Nachamu was said by Isaiah
in connection with the first Temple, yet Nachamu remains the Haftorah recited
after the destruction of the second Temple as well].
After my short talk on
the topic, the unhappy woman called me over to the side, and told me, that
this is the first yahrzeit of her son, whose Bar-mitzvah was on Shabbat Nachamu.
She had come to this weekend to try to get away from the pain. She acknowledged
that her distress was the cause of all her complaints. After hearing my words,
she felt consoled. She believed that we indeed do have the power to comfort
each other, and as such she would like me to dedicate the Haftorah reading
in honor of her son.
Yes, my friends, we have
the power to console and strengthen each other. We should not take this lightly;
it is a Divine power given to us as a great gift. Obviously, this gift also
comes with its alter ego: the ability to hurt each other. But the focus must
be on our ability to choose the path of empowering each other.
This may also explain
the great power in human touch. We know today – something that was always
emphasized in Torah tradition – the profound effects of a mother’s cradling
her newborn child. We have yet to fully appreciate the impact of nine months
of pregnancy, when the fetus is completely submerged in its mother’s womb,
on a child’s development and sense of security in this world. But is abundantly
clear that the loving touch of parents helps a child develop safety and confidence,
and the ability to in turn love and touch others.
G-d could have created
us to be completely self-dependent, without the need for human affirmation,
but than we humans would not be part of creating the magic of love. So G-d
did take a risk – as He did with all the powers bestowed on humans – but a
risk that was well worth the benefits: The great power we generate when we
synergize, love and empower each other.
It is true that Hillel
the sage says, “If I am not for myself who will be for me?” But he also continues,
“If I am only for myself, what am I?” The second phrase does not contradict
the first, because first and foremost, each of us is an individual that has
the power to stand on his own feet. Even if we do not receive the proper love
(G-d forbid), we are not doomed and we have the ability to compensate by nurturing
our selves, through connecting to our Divine souls. In other words, we are
self-standing individuals; our inherent value is not determined by other people.
But once we have established
the sense of self (“If I am not for myself who will be for me?”), one can
reach great heights only with the support and complementation of others (“If
I am only for myself, what am I?”).
So, remember that every
time you interact with another person: You have the unique ability to empower
him or her. Every time.
It’s all about human dignity.
To respect another’s dignity is the same as respecting your own. If one is
compromised the other will quickly follow. Furthermore, each of us is
a microcosm of the whole. When you touch one person you touch a universe.
And finally, to touch another is to touch G-d.
Conversely, even if you
have lost trust in people due to disappointing experiences, always know that
there remain special individuals out there that have the ability to help us.
So never give up hope. Reach and you will find.
May we take that responsibility
seriously, and live up to its full power.