When a stranger comes to live in your land, do not hurt his feelings. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be like a native among you. You shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in Mitzrayim (Egypt). I am the L-rd your G-d – This week’s Torah portion (Leviticus 19:33-34)
Treat strangers with love because you too were once a stranger. How sensitive and profound – and forward thinking! Would you imagine that these empathetic words were conceived, not in the modern age, but in the Bible?
We usually think of compassion as being a righteous act of mercy: To be sensitive to those less fortunate. The Torah teaches us, however, the true meaning of empathy, as being one with another because you both are in the same situation. Compassion to others is compassion to yourself; we are all “in the same boat.” Love the stranger for you too were a stranger. Do not indict or dismiss your fellow with your own defect (Rashi, from Baba Metzia 59b). This does not allow for a pedestal position, which can border on condescension, that we are helping those lowers than ourselves. No, absolutely not. We are all “strangers” and by loving a stranger we earn the right to be loved as well.
Allow me to share a moving story that drives the point home – one that I shared at a talk I delivered a while back at a benefit dinner in Sharon, Massachusetts honoring supporters and teenage volunteers who help children with special needs.
A number of years ago, at one of my weekly classes I was discussing the fact that each one of us was sent to this Earth with an indispensable mission. And this mission imbues each human being with unique qualities, all the necessary faculties we need to fulfill our respective mission. Even if someone is weak or deficient in one area, even one born with a “handicap,” this same person is blessed with other strengths that compensate for and allow this individual to realize his or her calling. Some of these strengths may often be less obvious than others, and then it is our sacred responsibility to help uncover these deeper resources. Nothing is holier and more dignified than to help a person discover hidden potential, allowing him to actualize his unique life calling.
To illustrate the point, I shared the classic joke about the immigrant who got off the boat in NY. With no language and no contacts, he went looking for a menial job at the local Lower East Side synagogue. He applied to be the shamash (sexton) of the shul. Following a positive interview, he was given a contract to sign. Instead of signing his name he placed an X on the dotted line. “No, that will not do,” said the employer, “we need you to sign the contract with your full name.” “I can’t,” the greenhorn immigrant blurted out, “I don’t how to write.” “Well, in that case, I am sorry but we cannot hire you. The job requires someone who can write in English.”
Dejected, he left and went off searching for opportunities. Resourceful as he was, with a pinch of desperation, he eked out a job. Over the years, with diligence, ingenuity and persistence he climbed the ladder and ultimately became a very prosperous man. He became known in town for his enormous wealth, and was greatly respected by his peers and above all, by the banks that readily issued him the loans he requested.
One day, a new bank manager was going over this fellow’s latest loan application, and notices that instead of a signature there is an X at the bottom. The manager calls him up and says, “my dear sir, you forgot to sign the application.” “I did sign it with an X,” he replied. She was bewildered. “Why do you sign with an X and not with your name, if I may ask.” “Well,” he sheepishly replied, “ I never learned how to sign my name.” The bank manager smiled and remarked: “Now listen here. You made so much money without knowing the language. Just imagine how much more successful you would have become had you received an education and learned to sign your name.”
“Madam,” the gentleman calmly said, “if I knew how to sign my name I would have become the shamash in the local synagogue…”
After my class, a striking young man approached me. As he got closer I saw that he suffered from some motor complications. He asked to speak with me privately. After everyone left we sat down, and he began to tell me his story. His words came out slowly, due to a speech impediment, and he shared with me that he was born with a rare disease that affected his nervous system, which also impaired his mental capacity and growth. He later discovered that his parents gave him away as a newborn, after hearing that he was diagnosed with severe mental handicaps. Over the years, it turned out that the diagnosis was not completely accurate, though he still suffered from many problems. At that point, his parents were not willing or unable to handle him and they chose to have no contact with him.
His parents were clearly wealthy – and quite prominent, as he would later discover – and they provided that he be cared for in a quality institution for children with special needs. But they never came to visit him, and for all practical purposes he was brought up as an orphan. A “privileged orphan,” he was told. All his physical needs met, except for the most important one: Unconditional love from nurturing parents.
As much as I tried, I could not completely control my feelings pouring out for his soul. However, more powerful than all his pain was the refined light shining out of this young but old man. He was simply an exquisite human being. With a special charm, clearly the result of years of struggle, he had emerged with a very rare type of warmth, which basked everything around him in a soft glow.
“And tonight,” he tells me, “you said that each one of us has a unique mission despite appearances. I too, like the fellow in your story, lack certain abilities. But, unlike the wealthy man in your story, I do not know what strengths I have in return. Can you help me discover my special qualities?”…
I was taken. He wasn’t aware of his own level of refinement. This tortured man could give more love and kindness than most people I know, yet he was crying for help.
What can I say, my heart went out to him in the deepest possible way, and we began to communicate regularly. He would attend many of my classes and I would converse with him about many things, and he would always elicit in me kindness I did not know I had. From time to time, he would address his own feelings of rejection and his desire to confront his parents. He had tracked them down, but was terrified of contacting them.
Mischievous thoughts began to creep into my brain about contacting them myself. But what would I say? Who am I to call them? I tried not to be judgmental; who knows what they have endured; what caused them to give up and desert their own child? But is it being judgmental to ask whether any parent has such a right – no matter what the excuse? And is it my role to be the one that confronts these parents?
These were the thoughts running through my mind. Yet despite my discomfort, I was slowly building the courage to pick up the phone. I also had to figure how to get my friend to give me his parents name without tipping him off that I may call. Or maybe I should share with him my intentions.
Procrastination settled in, as it does in all awkward situations, and more time passed. Finally, I said to myself, ok, I’ll wait for a day when I am in a particularly perturbed mood – due to some of the inhumanities of life, or just the plain sadness of existential loneliness – and need to release it somewhere, that’s when I’ll call his father.
Great plan. But as great plans go they don’t always work as you would like them to. I finally got his number, began dialing a few times and hung up before finishing. “This is not going to work,” I said to myself. “I really need a kick in the pants, one of those that make you feel that nothing on Earth matters, including your own petty pride or shame, when you can gather the chutzpah to do anything.”
And then, tragedy struck in the form of the death of my father, when everything simply melts away, and then I finally made the call.
“Hello, good afternoon, this is Simon Jacobson. I am a friend of your son’s and would like to speak to you about him.” Deathly silence on the other end of the line. What do I say now? “Hello, hi may we speak for a few moments?” “What can I do for you?” was the brisk and cold response. “I know your son. He is an extraordinary man and I thought that would make you proud.”
Click. The father hung up the phone.
What do I do now? Call back? I decided to wait. A few days later I tried again. This time his secretary did not let the call through, so I left a message saying that “this matter is very personal and can have profound long-term consequences for good or for bad.”
I tried again the next day and what do you know, he took my call. Now what? I simply said: “Please understand. I am not in the business of meddling. I am not being critical or judgmental. I simply feel from the depths of my heart that it would be life-transforming for you and your wife to meet your son.”
“We don’t want to talk about it, we don’t want to go there, we did what we felt was best for everyone.”
“I am sure you did. Still, today, now, your son has grown to be a tremendous soul. He needs to see you and you need to see him. Please consider that.”
“I’ll get back to you.”
He didn’t. But now I was on the warpath. So I called again. He did apologize for not getting back – almost making me respect his cordiality, until I remembered why were here in the first place – and said that his wife would not be able to do it. Too uncomfortable. He mumbled something about having “long ago buried this.” But I persisted. “So then I’ll arrange for you to meet your son without your wife.” “No, not yet.” I could tell from the change in his father’s tone that he had done some research on me (google or whatever).
At this point I decided to share with their son my maneuvers, and I could see, though he protested, that he was deeply moved by my efforts.
It would require too much paper (or kb in e-mail measurements) for me to describe the entire back-and-forth process spanning over several months. Let me suffice by saying that he finally relented, and together with his wife we scheduled the fateful meeting that everybody dreaded. At their insistence, which surprised me, they wanted me to be present at the meeting, I figured, to serve as a bit of a buffer.
The big day came. We met at their lavish home in the living room, tea and biscuits on the table, all choreographed to the tee, except for the emotions that would be released.
Oh man, this was one of the most heart wrenching experiences I would ever endure, and I wondered what havoc did I wreak. But too late. Here we were. Initially, everybody was cordial, even detached, like strangers meeting about buying a house. “What do you do?” “Where have you traveled?” “Are you a Yankee fan?” “How’s the weather?” – you get the idea. After sitting silent, trying to be invisible and letting things take their natural, biological course (or so I hoped), I finally piped in and said the first serious statement of the evening. “Your son told me his story. He must have a lot of anger inside of him, but he hasn’t shown it to me, or maybe not even to himself. You must have many feelings yourselves. I really don’t belong here, but since I am here allow me to say that your son is one of the most beautiful people I know. I have discovered through him new horizons of human dignity and the capacity of the soul to shine in this harsh world. I think it would be truly life-changing for you to get to know each other.”
Before I stood up to leave, our hero, turned to his parents and uttered a few words that could melt any heart. With a stutter and a bit slowly – his speech was impeded, as you may recall – he began: “Mumma, Puppa” – I could tell that he worked long and hard to get those words out (he never referred to his parents that way when he spoke with me).
“Mumma, Puppa… I, I am not perfect. You, too, you also not perfect. I have forgiven you. Can you forgive me?…”
We all burst into tears. I made my way out the door, leaving them alone…
* * *
We are all “strangers” in this world. We are all “special children.” All in need and deserving of unconditional love. Some people’s specialness is more obvious than others. Some exceptional souls are concealed beneath a veneer of “normalcy” and established “comfort zones.” Others, less fortunate on one end, but more so on another, do not have the mask of “regularity” which hides their special souls. When the mask of the ”ordinary” is torn off or exposed due to trauma or loss, suddenly extraordinary dimensions emerge, ones that we were not aware of.
But all our souls are strangers on this material planet. The only difference between people is that some know this fact and some don’t.
Some think that they have “made their home” and are comfortable in the corporeal reality and its institutions. To the extent that they feel there is nothing else but what I see and hear, nothing more than the here and now that I experience with my senses. Material beings on a material journey, with perhaps some bouts of spiritual, transcendent experiences. Isn’t that what we call “maturity” and “success” – to have finally made it, leaving behind the naiveté and inexperience of youth, mastering and controls of power and influence in this world?
And others – far fewer – know that they are souls on a spiritual journey through a material universe, on a bodily stage with physical props, and are thus always “strangers,” even when they build their homes and learn the ropes to maneuver through the conventions of “establishment.” As accustomed and as friendly as they become to the tangible world, as immersed as they may be, they never become “part” of this world, always remain “above and beyond,” strangers enchanted and even apprehensive of the material reality around them.
Love the stranger, for you too were – and always are – a stranger in your own limitations and constraints (Mitzrayim).