To Truly SEE Another

Kol Nidre

Delivered at Temple Emanu-El on September 29, 2017

I can feel the holiness in the room, the sanctity of this space as our souls have come together for this Kol Nidre service. As we look around at everyone here, we see familiar faces and we see new faces. Look to the person to your left and right, maybe it’s a spouse, maybe it’s a child, a friend, or a stranger — they are not just people with their outfit, their hair, their demeanor — each of us has something much deeper to share with the world.

On Yom Kippur we come together to be in this space as a community. We could spend all of Yom Kippur alone, praying in solitude, but we would not fulfill the purpose of Yom Kippur. This day is about reconnecting with the best version of ourselves. As Rabbi Dalia Marx notes in the beginning of our machzor:

For all its frustrations, the Jewish community remains a sacred vessel for our shared hopes, yearnings, struggles, and fears. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, the community elevates and enhances each individual’s experience. Judaism insists, somewhat paradoxically, that we discover our uniqueness and become our best selves, not through solitary contemplation, but by having significant encounters with others and positive experiences as part of a collective. (1)

Here we are, in community, so that we can motivate one another to be better and to do better. We are here as witnesses to one another in this process of repentance and we are witnesses to one another each and every day of the year.

Let me share with you a story that speaks to me on this Yom Kippur. It is a story of the power of community and collective responsibility.

When Max and I lived in Israel in the Summer of 2016 we rode the #13 bus to work each day of the hot Jerusalem summer. When you ride the same bus at about the same time each day you run into some of the same familiar faces. There were the cute little girls who got on at the stop after us, about 7-years-old, who would suddenly look so mature as they scanned their bus cards and then found their usual seat next to the older woman with her market cart. Then there were the familiar faces in the back, sitting with blank stares as they listened to the latest music or podcast on their phones. And the final familiar face was that of the man who would sit, each morning, the third row back on the right side, window seat. He was distinct for his white and blue embellished kippah, his kind eyes, and the sounds he would make due to his Tourettes syndrome. Many of the faces were the same each morning, and that bus was comfortable, we were a community together and in some way, it just felt right.  

And then one morning, we took a ride that I will never forget. The little girls were there, the woman with her market cart was there, as were some of the familiar faces in the back, and the man with the beautiful white and blue kippah, the third row back on the ride side, window seat. This particular morning his tics were pretty loud, but everyone was very polite, it wasn’t a bother, the bus ride was comfortable and familiar. Stop after stop people got on, people got off, it was a normal ride. Then, about halfway through our route, a woman, with a face we had never seen before, got onto the bus and became very flustered and disgruntled by the man with Tourettes. She actually started to yell at him, “What are you doing, stop making those sounds!” Immediately, the entire front of the bus threw their arms at her with shouts of “leave him alone, he can’t help it, don’t be so rude, don’t you understand!” The man became embarrassed by the woman’s comments, she apologized, but the unwanted attention resulted in his tics becoming louder. The bus could sense his tension, saddened that he couldn’t control what was happening. As is a part of verbal tics for some people with Tourettes, the man was unable to control the words coming out of his mouth, and his tic of “oy lo” turned to one of the worst things you can say on an Israeli bus, “Allah Hu Akbar! [God is Great] in Arabic.

Despite this cry, associated with both the beauty of Muslim prayer and in stark contrast, as words uttered by extremists before terror attacks, I took great comfort in seeing that the faces on the bus turned to one another, with eyes of, hakol beseder, all is well. I wanted to sit down next to him in support, on the right side, the third row back, aisle seat — that he should feel welcome on the bus, but our stop was approaching. “Moshe Hess, David HaMelech” sounded from the PA system, and as I stepped off the busI was heartened to hear the return of “oy, lo” as my feet hit the Jerusalem stone.

This was one of the most moving experiences I had ever witnessed in Israel. Greater than the spiritual experiences in prayer spaces, than the buzz of Jerusalem on a Friday morning, than the beaches of Tel Aviv on a Sunday afternoon, than the call to worship outside my favorite hummus shop in Ramle. In that moment I was part of a beautiful time in Israeli society, the willingness for strangers to jump to defend someone being oppressed in their midst. Secular, Orthodox, Reform, men, women, jumping to say, “What you are doing to that man is not right, and we will not allow it on our bus.” Our communal collective says that this is not okay, and we will be witnesses to one another and stand up for what is right.

When I wasn’t taking the bus in Jerusalem, I loved to walk everywhere. When you walk in the city of Jerusalem, you have the opportunity to experience every crevice of the city, every good smell…every bad smell, the beautiful shops, the Daati Le’umi, the Modern Orthodox women wearing beautiful dresses and stilettos, the men in their dark blue slim fit suits (very in right now), the cut-off t-shirts, the long skirts, the short skirts, the tank tops, the long sleeves, the Jerusalem stone, slick all year round, and the crystal clear sky, not a cloud from May until October. There is no organization to the sidewalk, it is orderly chaos. There are all these people and so many of them aren’t looking at one another, they aren’t seeing each other. There’s no uniformity and certainly no recognizable community on the streets of Jerusalem it is every woman, every man for himself or herself.

Last year, Sarah Tuttle-Singer, an American-Israeli independent writer and New Media Editor for the Times of Israel—with an active social media presence that angers the left and the right — she wrote about what it meant for her to walk the streets of Jerusalem. She wrote her piece last summer during the time that I was walking and riding the bus on those same Jerusalem streets. Sarah Tuttle-Singer is a writer who gets death threats, hateful messages, and mean comments pretty much every item she ever posts, and yet this particular piece was without such responses. Instead, it was full of hand praise emojis and reflections of similar experiences from her readers.

Sarah wrote about what it meant to walk the streets of Jerusalem as a woman. She found herself constantly stepping aside for people while they plowed on like she didn’t exist. Had she not moved, and they certainly didn’t look like they were moving, they would have run into each other, hard. So Sarah started an experiment. She walked the city for a day and decided she was not going to move unless the other person gave the social signal that they were rounding their path to avoid her, then she would give the same courtesy. But if no such courtesy was in sight, she was prepared to walk in her straight line. She wrote, and I’ve edited for her colorful language here, 

A Haredi guy was headed in my direction. I didn’t stop. I didn’t step aside. Nor did he. He crashed into me, breaking the religious custom of shomer negia where men and women aren’t allowed to touch unless they’re married to each other. Full on body slam. Really hurt. And O.M. HaShem homie was mad. He shook his fist at me. He spat. He cursed me in Yiddish. All because we were both there first and I didn't step aside for him. So I smiled and continued straight. (2)

Sarah’s piece continued to cite examples like the one I just mentioned, as well as the exceptions, the people who did step aside. In her conclusion, she wrote, “And to be clear: I will happily move out of the way for you when you do the same for me. Because my time and my space is no more important, but also no less important than yours or anyone else.”

Sarah wasn’t running into the elderly who couldn’t move out of her way or the man pushing a wheelchair, but she was on a walk for respect, on a search to be seen by the community of Jerusalem.

We all deserve to be seen and we all should seek to see the other in our midst. Our tradition is rich with texts about loving our neighbor and not oppressing the stranger in our midst, but how often do we become so consumed with our lives, with the good, the bad, the easy, the difficult, the indifferent. When we walk along the street or our office hallways, how often do we stare at our phones, the sky, the busy people, the bustling street, or just our feet? But when our eyes meet with those of a kind stranger, we give that sort of half smile, head nod, “hey how are ya,” acknowledgment of their very existence. Greeting a stranger is no easy task, there is the fear of rejection, of our kind gesture being returned with looks of annoyance or disdain. But there is a great power that comes from the positive exchange.

In a commentary on Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Fathers, we learn that when a person receives their fellow in a cheerful manner, even if the other person gives nothing back, Scripture gives credit to the first as though they had given the best gifts of the world. (3)

Even if we greet others in our midst without receiving anything in return, we have given them the best gifts of this world. In this community, after this service, how can you greet the other in your midst? After this Yom Kippur how can you greet the other in this synagogue? When you see them at the grocery store, car wash, or soccer game, who can greet the other first? When we acknowledge the other in our midst we build humanity, we build relationships, we build community. Sometimes it begins with a physical greeting — the eye contact, the smile, the head nod, the physical movement of our bodies from its original path to make space for another person’s existence.

When we acknowledge another person’s existence, and raise up their humanity, we build a better world. The man on the right side of the bus, third row back window seat, he deserves the utmost respect and acknowledgment of his existence, because he is, he exists in this world. Sarah Tuttle-Singer, walking with confidence down the street, she deserves to be seen and her presence acknowledged because she is, because she is a human being going about her day. Each of you in this congregation, your presence deserves to be recognized because you are. Each of us carries different weights on our shoulders as we move from one task to another in our busy lives, but when we acknowledge the humanity of another, we build up our community and our world.

On this Yom Kippur, as we reflect deeply on how we have existed this past year, we ask forgiveness for the aspects of our being that were not what we wanted them to be, and we think about how we will exist in the next year. We are all here, calling out to the Universe as individuals within a community. We are witnesses to one another on this day, and every day. As the weight of this day weighs on our shoulders, I would ask you once again to look at the person to your left and your right — they are present with you. They are here to lift the weight of the day and to take this journey with you. As we spend the next 24 hours in deep reflection and contemplation may we take the beautiful moments to truly see those around us. May our work build community, and may we greet one another and those we have yet to encounter with love.

כֵּן יְהִי רָצוֹן

May this be God’s will.

(1) Mishkan HaNefesh xviii

(2) Posted by Sarah Tuttle-Singer on her personal Facebook page

(3) Avot D’Rebbe Natan 13