How much do humans need—and how much can we do for—each other? An over 2500-year-old prophecy teaches us a timeless lesson in the power we have to help heal one another.
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 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 factors.
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 gentleman.
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 a lunatic.”
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 comes 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 power.
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 then 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.