In a world where things seem to be coming apart at its seams, problems abound and inspiration is in short supply. Race relations are back on the front burner, Coronavirus fears continue. Do we open or not? So many of these issues seem to cut along party lines, extending the divide already in place. We must find guidance and strength, though often it comes from the strangest
Today I met a friend for coffee ―socially distanced― who I hadn’t seen in a while. The inspiration for the meeting was that this friend had put out an announcement of his recent engagement. The problem was that his bride-to-be was not Jewish.
I was not sure how to respond to the email notification. To wish him Mazal Tov would be to sanction the choice he made. To ignore it ― aside from being a statement in and of itself – would be a form of silent rebuke. The command to love our fellow as ourselves and even more than ourselves (as the Rebbe would often say) trumps all, so I simply replied, “I love you and miss you, let’s get together for coffee some time.”
To my pleasant surprise, he jumped at the opportunity and we scheduled to meet up today in a Starbuck parking lot. In anticipation of the meeting, I spent many (mind) hours thinking about what I wanted to say to him. Nothing wise was coming to mind, but I figured we’d get together and we’d just see what happens.
So there we were, in the parking lot of the Starbucks, (he was kind enough to sit on the lengthy drive through line to grab my cup of joe) and it hit me. As my friend handed my coffee to me, his exposed arm revealed his many tattoos. Therein lies my answer.
I thought to myself, tattoos have always been a huge NO for Jews. It is rumored that in the days of old, a person with a tattoo couldn’t be buried in the Jewish section of the cemetery. That is in fact not true , but the taboo around it was huge. My grandparents would have wept at the sight of his grandchild’s tattoo.
Why did it not bother me so? Not because I am so woke and new agey. Not because I am better than my grandfather. Rather, as a student of Chassidus and follower of the Lubavitcher I have been conditioned in Ahavas Yisroel (love for your fellow). This means, that A) I am not in the business of judging people, but far more importantly, B) he is not his tattoo. He is who he is, the tattoo is a choice/decision that he made. It is his new skin color, but it is not his essence. He is a pure and holy soul and he happens to be a great guy with a great sense of humor.
Who is he? What is his soul? I can’t tell you exactly but I can tell you what it is not. It is not his life choices, be they tattoos and intermarriage or daily shul attendance and a kosher home.
There is a famous story told of the Alter Rebbe who raised his orphaned grandson, Menachem Mendel who later became the 3rd Rebbe of Lubavitch, the Tzemach Tzedek.
The young child was on his Zeidy’s lap, and stroked his grandfather’s beard muttering “Zeidy Zeidy.” The Alter Rebbe answered, “That is not Zeidy, that is Zeidy’s beard. Where is Zeidy?” The child put his hand on his grandfather’s heart and again said “Zeidy.” Again the Rebbe answered, “that is not Zeidy, that is Zeidy’s heart. Where is Zeidy?”
This continued for a bit with the child pointing to various parts of his Zeidy and finally he jumped off his grandfather’s lap and went behind the door. The Rebbe continued to study and at some point, the child yelled “ZEIDY ZEIDY!” The Alter Rebbe jumped up to see what the matte was and as he got close to the child, the child said, “that’s Zeidy.”
The Alter Rebbe smiled and appreciated the wisdom of what the child had communicated. He conveyed that he’d gotten the message. Zeidy was not a body part, but he was the sum total of what triggered him and got him to jump up.
I share this story as a way of making a distinction between what we do and who we are. They are not one and the same.
My friend is not his tattoo. He is not even his far more significant decision to marry out of the faith. Those are factors that show where his mind is at, but they are not who he is. He is his soul. His essence. That is pure and always remains so. Just as I don’t find it difficult to not judge his skin deep tattoo, so I must find it equally not difficult to just his decision marrying someone not Jewish. Both are not his essence. His essence is his soul.
My obligation to love my fellow as myself is to love their essence, not their skin deep (pun intended) decisions.
Today with race discussions, political divisions, a world that appears to be coming apart at the seams, where people are judging one another based on skin color or political persuasion, is a world that focuses not on the essence on the soul. In such a world there is space, sadly, for such judgmentalism and even hate.
We need to connect with people, not their skin or even their choices. We need to connect to their souls. If the world would do more soul-connecting, we’d find the space to love and not judge.
Based on Chapter 32 Tanya