Seeing the Humanity in Everyone - Rosh HaShanah Day One

Rabbi Greg Weisman


We see them everyday. I saw them this morning. Standing on the medians of Glades or Palmetto Park Road, maybe with a sign or a bucket. As we come to a stop, or wait for our chance to make a left turn, we have to choose- make eye contact, or find something else to fixate on until they walk past our car.

I’ll be honest: I don’t like seeing panhandlers out on the road. I pass by them every day, and everyday I am pained. I have seen the pain in their faces, and I don’t want to look. I see the beard that has not been trimmed in months or years. I see a woman who is clearly pregnant, and wonder how if she is getting the pre-natal care that is so important to both her and her baby. I don’t want to have to look at it, or think about it, or feel bad about it. As I am driving through the streets of Boca, thinking about the class I am going to teach later in the week or mentally preparing for the funeral I am heading to, the last thing I want is to have to break away from that as I am confronted with a cup outside my car window. I might think to myself, “I know he must have issues, but I’m dealing with my own life here, and trying to help other people with theirs.” Or, in that moment, those persistent and misguided predilections about panhandlers might come to the surface, like, He must have done something wrong to find himself in this situation, or She’s only going to use it to buy drugs and alcohol. I probably could help you, but I just don’t have the time or the patience, right now. I turn my focus away, and when the light changes, I drive off.
And afterwards, I feel bad. I feel bad that I didn’t something to help, that I didn’t reach into my pocket for a couple of bucks, or don’t keep bottles of water and energy bars in my car to give out. I looked at that person, that man, that woman, standing on the median and made assumptions about how they got there, and those assumptions make me numb to their reality and their humanity. I didn’t take the time to think about how they may have found themselves in that desperate situation. 

It is a challenge to see or think or feel beyond ourselves. We are hard-wired with the instinct of self-preservation to think of ourselves first. I’m thirsty, I need water. Hungry; food. Hot or cold, shelter. Got those things? Great. Now I can move on to the finer things in life. No…but wait! Before I can do that, I need to think about those around me to? This is especially true in our age when we are completely overrun with information and stimuli. It’s become harder and harder to just keep our own lives and our own needs attended to, let alone challenge ourselves to think about those with whom we share our community. It takes a lot of self-care to be able to care for the other.

But it is so important that we do so. It is something that our tradition declares and repeats, instructs and reiterates throughout our history. We are all created b’tzelem Elohim, we learn in the beginning of Genesis, we are created in God’s image, divinely imbued, and entitled to a level of honor and respect befitting one of God’s creations. Ahav et Rei’echa KaMocha the Book of Leviticus  teaches us; love your neighbor as yourself. Your neighbor is the person who lives next door to you, who lives in your town or village, who inhabits the world in which you live and whose world you inhabit. The rabbis of the Mishnah, in their famous ethical treatise that we call Pirkei Avot wrote Al tadin et chavercha ad sh’tagiah l’m’komo,  do not judge your fellow until you have arrived or stood in his place, or as we might say today, until you have walked a mile in his shoes.

Why does our tradition hammer home this obligation, to love and understand our fellow human beings and relate to them? Probably because we find it so uncomfortable to do. The wisdom in Torah is that it recognizes our instincts and challenges us to channel them for the good. We have incredible abilities of insight and caring, of preservation and safety, and we use those instincts to protect ourselves, our families, our loved ones, our friends. Good, but not good enough, Torah teaches. Care about those you see and don’t know. Help your fellow lift his donkey that has fallen under its load , and once you have done that, help your enemy do the same.  Seek to understand what motivates your fellow human being, and if you do, your interactions with them will be more pleasant and fruitful.

But it is so easy not to. It is so easy to get caught up in our own heads, to assume that the way that we see the world is the way that the world is. Once we have done that, it’s almost impossible to understand why someone would disagree with us, or think differently than us. We know that it leads to disagreement, to argument, and maybe even to resentment or hatred, but we do it anyway. We do it at home, with our family and friends. We do it in our Jewish community and in our American public discourse. We certainly do it when it comes to race and race relations. We judge other people and their insights before they have even opened their mouths.

I have a teacher  who taught me the value of listening, of truly listening, when in dialogue. Listening, he said, means waiting until the other person has finished speaking before you start thinking about your response. It means not presuming to know what they are thinking or where they are going until they get there and tell you. It means respecting the notion that our experiences color our insights, and that because of our past experiences, we might both look at the same set of details and see them very differently. It doesn’t mean that you are right and I am wrong, or that you are good and I am bad, it just means that we live in a complicated world. But as it says in Proverbs, “Iron sharpens iron, and so a man sharpens his fellow’s disposition.”  When we actually take the time to listen to the other person, to try to understand what they are saying and not just use their comments as a prompt for their our own arguments, we can actually learn something about them, about our world, and about ourselves.

Easier said than done, though. More often then not, when we get into a disagreement with someone, when what they are saying, or doing, or being, challenges our thoughts or dispositions, our instinct is to dismiss, to challenge, to argue. It happens in our families all of the time. Think about a time when you had a fight with a spouse or a child or a parent, and the fight was over something SO stupid that you now tell the story with a laugh, even sharing it with friends outside of your family circle. The tightness that we feel with our family, the comfort that comes from knowing someone for your entire life, protects us from all kinds of strife. Blood, as they say, is thicker than water. But we can also get mired in the thickness of that blood, assuming that our family and close ones see the world like we do, and wondering what’s wrong with them when they don’t. But every mother of a teenager, or father of a toddler has found themselves so confounded with their child’s behavior that they wonder “what in the world where you thinking!?” As parents and as children we lash out as a result of that bewilderment, failing in the moment to see the world through our loved ones’ eyes. If it happens once or twice, we usually have the ability to recover. But a lifetime of these misunderstandings, of these snap judgments, can erode the fabric of even the closest family.

This summer, another of our families, the Jewish family, forgot these values of listening and understanding with really upsetting consequences. Like a family, we Jews are known to disagree. As the old saying goes, two Jews, three opinions. We disagree on how to be Jewish, on what we believe. We disagree about Israel, about what she needs, and what we can do for her. And this summer, we disagreed about the Iran deal. That was to be expected. With stakes as high as the potential threat of a nuclear Iran represents, discord was not just unavoidable, it was in some ways necessary. But what happened through the course of that discussion was something that really had not happened in recent history of the Jewish people. The mix of domestic US politics, different expressions of Zionism, organizations and public officials seeking to address both global and parochial concerns led many in the Jewish community to begin to question and to downright ignore the motivations of those with whom they did not agree. Is the deal with Iran perfect? No, far from. Does it address some of our concerns? Yes. All of them? No. Enough?…we’ll see. But what has pained me throughout this process has been the vitriol, the cynicism, the judgmental attitudes that people all over the spectrum expressed. If you are against this deal, then you are for war, some have said. No, I might be against this deal because I don’t think it adequately protects us from war. If you are for the deal, then you are legitimizing a regime who is dedicated to destroying the State of Israel and terrorizing the Great Satan, the United States. No, I have significant concerns about the motivations of the Iranians, and I might think that this is one small but important step in preventing this terrifying regime from, for the time being, acquiring the tools to wreak untold havoc on my two homelands. Many in the Jewish community, particularly towards the top of our communal organizations, have appeared very concerned with expressing their thoughts, but been quite dismissive of other’s fervently held opinions. Through that process, we have wounded ourselves. As I [present tense] read statements that are coming out now that the deal is a done deal, I hear a lot of “now it’s time to heal the wounds.” Wrong. The time to heal the wounds was before they were inflicted. The next time we are struggling with a difficult decision (its not like we have too many of those), we should strive to challenge ourselves to actually listen to those who express different opinions so that, instead of creating wounds, we use the potential energy that tension creates to build bridges of agreement and understanding, of mutual respect and progress.

This challenge and obligation to try to see the world through other’s eyes is especially true when it comes to race. The role that race plays in our society, the historical and emotional connotations that conversations about race can have in some ways is [thee] challenge and the [thee] opportunity of our generation. And the key to understanding race in the 21st Century is to challenge ourselves to see beyond our own experience and to seek an appreciation of what those of other races and backgrounds see through their own eyes. This is especially true for those of us who, through no achievement or fault of our own, have been raised in the majority culture, in white American society. The millions of Americans of other colors constantly find themselves having to navigate this majority culture, and its time that everyone, black, white, brown, green, purple, challenge themselves to appreciate the racial and cultural journeys of their fellow Americans.

Let’s be honest…we have come a long way. It took about 250 years from the onset of slavery in this hemisphere for our collective wisdom to recognize its moral shortcomings. It took 100 years from the end of slavery for our nation, with indispensible support from our Reform movement, to enact legislation like the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act and finally offer protections for the principles of justice and fairness for all. Fifty years later, the majority of Americans cast their ballot for an African-American president. Overt racism is simply no longer tolerated in our society. 

Yet in the last few years our nation has been roiled with racial tension and strife. The deaths of several black men and women, many of them young, unarmed, and at the hands of law enforcement officials, has opened up a wound that many had hoped was completely healed. In response to what has been seen by some as a callous disregard for people by color by individuals and institutions throughout our nation, a campaign to remind the entire world that “Black Lives Matter” has begun to spread to all corners of our society. Events like last week’s mistaken arrest of tennis star James Blake, and the violence with which he was taken into custody, only serve to underscore the observation by many that black men are presumed to be dangerous and treated as such. Not all black men are dangerous, and very few of our law enforcement officers make these egregious mistakes- most of both groups are good, well-intentioned people concerned with their lives, their families, and their communities. But clearly, a level of distrust and judgment has arisen that needs to be addressed.

And yet, I believe that we are on the precipice of a new dimension to the conversation about race in this country. As I was growing up and into my adulthood, I felt like the idea our society was advancing was one of colorblindness. See each other not for the color of our skin, but for who we are on the inside, I was taught. Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech instructed us to judge people not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. What Dr. King did not preclude, but the colorblindness ideal did, was appreciating that the color of our skin does influence who we are, what we think, what our social mores come to be. On the one hand, common skin color has very little to do with genetic similarity; the chances are high that I have more in common genetically with someone across the world and with a different ethnic background than many of you here with me today.  And so what in many ways distinguishes black from white is not our genetics but our socialization. We are all raised in a culture. Important books like Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and Debby Irving’s Waking Up White have in the last year or so challenged us to understand are the vast differences between black culture and white culture, and more importantly, how dominant white culture is in the quilt that we might call American culture. The anecdotes they share, from their own lives and their own experiences, are both gut wrenching and eye opening. Each of them describes a world in which people, both black and white, fail to see the humanity in the other. Whether it was the racist redlining policies of 20th Century real estate which made it next to impossible for black Americans to move into “white” neighborhoods , higher interest rates for black borrowers, or the presumption that all white police officers are racist pigs, three real phenomenon that don’t begin to capture the depth of the racial strife in our nation, we are suffering from a true lack of understanding in our country. We, for the most part, live separately, attend our own schools and institutions, and for most white Americans, their only interactions with people of color happen in “white” mileaus, like offices owned by white business people.

As Jewish Americans, we sit somewhere in the middle of all of this. On the one hand, there is no doubt, not for a moment that in the continuum of white and black America, the vast majority of American Jews are white. And we carry with us the cultural baggage of other lands and other times when we were the outsider, persecuted, discriminated against, ignored, even vilified. The central message of our foundational story, the Exodus from Egypt, is that we know what it feels like to be oppressed, Avadim hayinu, we were slaves, and now we are free. Therefore we ought to challenge ourselves to be more understanding and sensitive to the other peoples with whom we interact in our lives, and to seek to elevate them from prop to person, from character to partner. It is part of our sacred obligation to God and to each other not to ignore the humanity of the person across from whom we stand.

Empathy and deep understanding doesn’t happen on its own. We have to challenge ourselves to see the world through other’s eyes. For friends and family, that might be easy…it can start over a cup of coffee. It might mean abandoning our preferred news outlets (or maybe abandoning news outlets all together) and their talking heads, and seeking out the leading minds with whom you disagree. It also means challenging ourselves not to be as quick to judge, to do that listening that really allows for others to express themselves. If we do that, perhaps this new year can be one of cooperation and celebration, a quieting of the strife of the past.

On this Rosh HaShanah, let us commit to a renewed spirit of understanding and learning. As we hear the sound of the shofar, let’s its blasts awaken us, open our eyes and our minds. Let’s shake off the blinders that we have fashioned for ourselves, and turn our eyes to those around us. Remember that they too are gifts from God, are divine beings. To call us to that attention, to remind us of our responsibility to ourselves and to see the humanity in others. To turn our eyes toward person standing on the corner and see them as a fellow human being, and through this step help each other seek humanity in the world.

 (1) Genesis 1:27
 (2) Leviticus 18:19
 (3) Mishnah Avot 2:4
  (4) Deuteronomy 22:4
  (5) Exodus 23:5
  (6) Dr. Michael Zeldin, Senior National Director of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion Schools of Education. The teaching was in the context of a discussion of Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and specifically Habit 5, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
  (7) Proverbs 27:17
  (8) Debby Irving, Waking Up White, Elephant Room Press: Cambridge, MA, 2014, 44.
  (9) Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me, Spiegel & Grau: New York, 2015, 44.