Around the beginning of the last century, a great rabbi arrived in Jerusalem from Lithuania. His name was Aryeh Levin, and he was known as the Tzaddik-the Righteous One-of Jerusalem.
Like all great rabbis, Rabbi Levin spent his days studying and teaching the Torah; he also visited patients in the hospital and comforted the bereaved.
Rabbi Levin was the rabbi of a special neighborhood in Jerusalem called Mishkenot. And was a humble and modest man. He was loved by the religious and the nonreligious alike.
Everyone felt great affection for the rabbi because of his selflessness and his kindness, because of the way he extended himself to everyone around him.
One thing in particular can be said about Rabbi Levin: He loved his Shabbat! And he wanted to create a beautiful, peaceful atmosphere of Shabbat for himself and for all the members of the Jewish community. One of the ways in which he tried to do this was by persuading the Jewish store owners of Mishkenoth to close their shops for Shabbat.
‘That way, the rabbi explained, even the roads in the area would have that calm, contemplative atmosphere of Shabbat. Rabbi Levin successfully persuaded all the local Jewish shopkeepers to close their stores on Shabbat-all except one. There was one man, one store owner, a particular fellow who refused to close his store. The owner was not very observant; he was not a religious man, and he didn’t see the need to close his doors on Shabbat.
The store owner thought that he would lose too much business if his shop were closed on Friday night and all day Saturday. Even so, Rabbi Levin would often speak to the man and gently try to persuade him to change his mind.
However, the man continued to refuse to close his store on Shabbat. One Friday evening as Shabbat was coming in, Rabbi Levin did what he always did before Shabbat: He dressed in his finest garments, and he got ready to go to shul. As the sun began to set, Rabbi Levin left his home and began to walk.
But this time he did not walk in the direction of the synagogue; he went in the opposite direction. People were surprised to see Rabbi Levin walking away from the shul! They watched him as he walked toward that one shopkeeper’s store. When Rabbi Levin entered the store, he wished the owner Shabbat shalom-good Sabbath. He then asked the owner, “Would you mind? Could I just have a seat in your store to sit and to rest a little bit?”
The store owner felt honored that the rabbi was there, and he brought over a little stool for the rabbi to sit on. Rabbi Levin sat on the little stool in the corner of the store as Shabbat was coming in. And as Shabbat services were being chanted in the synagogue just a few blocks away, Rabbi Levin remained, sitting on the little stool in the corner of the store.
Rabbi Levin watched as many, many people came into the store. They bought food; they bought newspapers and cigarettes. After about an hour and a half, the rabbi got up. He thanked the shopkeeper for giving him a place to sit and rest. Rabbi Levin wished the store owner Shabbat shalom and left the store. The owner of the store could not understand what had just happened. The rabbi had missed services on Friday night!
The rabbi had been sitting in his store, a store that was open and doing business on Shabbat! What’s more, this rabbi had sat on a little stool in the corner of the store for an hour and a half, and he hadn’t said a thing! The store owner found the rabbi’s behavior very strange. It bothered him. So, on Sunday morning, the store owner went to the rabbi’s house. He knocked on the rabbi’s door, and the rabbi invited the store owner into his home.
“Please explain to me what happened this past Friday night,” the shopkeeper said.
And this is what the Tzaddik of Jerusalem, the Righteous One of Jerusalem, said: “You know that I have asked you to close your store on Shabbat; we have spoken about that many times.
But I wanted to understand for myself-I wanted to see for myself-what it would be like for you to close your store. I wanted to see with my own eyes and to feel with my own heart what it was that I was asking you to give up. And now I realize how difficult it would he for you.
And I see how much business you do on Friday night, and I now know how much you would be giving up by closing your store. And now that I truly understand, I can’t ask you-and I won’t ask you-to close your store on Shabbat.”
Without thinking very hard my guess is that we can each think of a group of people who are not treated as equal in today’s society. Turn on the news and we are reminded of this when we hear of a group who finds themselves facing unfair treatment by a system with bias built in, people whose rights have been curtailed or outright attacked by individuals in power whose job it should be to protect and uphold those rights.
Whether it’s women who want control over their
own bodies and healthcare decisions, unarmed black men being shot and killed by the police alltoo-regularly, legal or illegal immigrants who are simply trying to make a better life for themselves and their families, asylum seekers being punished at the border for trying to escape violence in their country and find some peace and prosperity in the land of the free and the home of the brave, these people all share one common trait, they are looked upon as the “other”, as if they don’t belong in the same society as those who judge their worthiness of a seat at the table.
Society has always determined who we would judge as different and has assigned value judgments of these individuals based on others’ ideas of how they should live their lives, or the mistakes they have made.
We have all been on both sides of judgment – how many times have we made snap judgments about someone because of the kind of car they drive, the clothes they wear, the words they use, or even the political views they hold?
On the other hand, we have all felt that sting when we feel we are being judged – whether it’s an action we have taken, an opinion we express, or a choice we make in life, we know what it feels like to be judged, – no one likes feeling judged, to feel as if we don’t belong, or that our choices are somehow less correct than others when much of the time it really boils down to personal choice.
Rabbi Hillel, in Pirkei Avot, says: Do no not judge our fellow humans until we are in their place.
It was only after the Rabbi went out of his way to understand the other in his world that he began to truly understand what he was asking the shop keep to do. It isn’t until we are able to see the world not as the other, but exactly like us, b’tzelem Elohim, made in the image of God, that we are able to understand choices made, opinions expressed.
You may have seen a video making the rounds online of a man shaving his face on the Northeast Corridor train from Penn Station in New York. The video post was made by an observer who singled out the man for his behavior, putting him on blast, so to speak – calling him out in the most public way possible to share his, in their view, uncouth behavior. Comments on this now-viral video ranged from disgust to whiffs of compassion, with the majority of commenters mocking this man’s behavior. This afternoon, the man, Anthony Torres, came forward to tell his story – Mr Torres is homeless – he had gotten money from one brother for the train ticket to go visit his other brother after suffering two strokes this year and sleeping in homeless shelters. Thomas, Mr. Torres brother said of his brother’s behavior, when he did what he did, that to him was normal. He’s not the kind of person that does it because of spite or because he wants the attention.” But nevertheless, Mr Torres found himself on viral video, being made fun of publicly.
It’s all too easy to live our lives pointed outward –
concentrating on the failings of those around us without first taking a good look at our own lives – far too easy to divorce ourselves from empathy and view those around us as other – unlike ourselves. It isn’t until we are able to step outside of ourselves, to see the other not as the other, but as a part of the same human community who is living a different life, has made different choices and has traveled a different path than we have, than we are able to truly understand both sides.
Even once someone has been judged to have done something wrong – whether it be in the courts or the court of public opinion, we collectively act as though the label of offender is an indelible mark on their character, never to be erased no matter what they may have done to account for their misdeed.
On Rosh Hashanah we begin asking for forgiveness from our fellow human. On Yom Kippur we ask for forgiveness from God and, tradition teaches, will be judged by our efforts. Jewish law allows for our sins against God to be forgiven once we ask for forgiveness and have taken the necessary steps of teshuva, tefillah, tzedakah – (repentance, prayer, charity). Tradition teaches that our judgment, by God, of a sin we have committed against God, is through once we have engaged with this process in earnest. Are we so arrogant that our standard for forgiveness and non-judgment of past misdeeds is higher than God’s? There is a limit to God’s judgment once we make amends – should there not be one for us too?
As we enter this New Year, at this time of reflection let us each think about Rabbi Levin’s lesson – not abstractly – but specifically as it applies to us. Where have we issued silent judgments about those around us? Where have we voiced our judgments and opinions aloud before contemplating the viewpoint of “the other”? Do we always do our best to understand where our fellow humans are coming from?
American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said: If we could read the secret history of our enemies we should find in each man’s life, sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.
On Yom Kippur, let us take a moment to pause, a moment to reflect on where we have judged.
We are surrounded by judgment – in the media, advertisements, social media, just walking down the street. As we take time to understand the nature of our judgment and as we begin to see humanity in our fellow humans, we have the opportunity to set the example for those around us. Deliberate behavior like this can also help others think…and then they, too, might join the community of compassionate souls merely trying to understand and to see the humanity in everyone.
At the end of Yom Kippur, the book of life is sealed and the days of God’s judgment of our actions end for another year. As we are, God willing, inscribed in the book of life for another year, let us end our days of judgment as well and let us put ourselves in our fellow human’s shoes. We are all trying our best in this thing called life. Let’s make it easy on ourselves and on our neighbors, friends, and those with whom we share the world by leaving the judgment up to God.