May 18, 2006
We Must Treat Others With Kindness
I often give young people advice on dating, occasionally without their asking. I tell young women not to judge a man by his car, since you will not end up living with the car but with the man who drives it. I advise men, when they take a woman to a restaurant, to sit facing the wall, so their attention will be fixed upon the woman, not everyone who walks into the room.
But my most common bit of advice to men and women alike is this: Don't pay attention to how your date treats you alone -- see how he treats the waiter, how she acts toward the busboy, the valet who brings you car. That is the test of character: How do you act toward the one who is not connected to you. How do you treat those whom you do not have to treat well?
Rabbi Reuven Kimmelman told me a wonderful story about the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Apparently, the Rebbe once had a meeting with Sen. [Daniel] Moynihan. After the senator asked him for his support, the Rebbe said, "Now I have something to ask you."
Moynihan, used to the requests of constituents, smiled and asked the Rebbe what he could do for him.
"Well" he said, "there is a population of people in New York who are good people, law abiding, good families, who do not really understand the system. I think they are not being treated as well as they should be. I want you, senator," concluded the Rebbe, "to make sure you take care of the Chinese."
That story illustrates a central part of the Exodus lesson -- that when someone is oppressed, there is a Jewish responsibility to care. This is true in society and in our own lives.
The Haggadah tells us "you were strangers in the land of Egypt." Here is the interesting thing -- because we were strangers, we are supposed to learn not how the Israelites should have acted, but -- how the Egyptians should have acted. We are supposed to learn how not to oppress others. Don't treat others the way we were treated.
The term stranger is mentioned some 36 times in the Torah. It is a central category. The Jewish philosopher Hermann Cohen beautifully wrote that in the idea of the stranger, Judaism was born. We are to care for those who are in our power. When you have power over another, you also have responsibility toward them.
Rabbi Israel Salanter saw a serving maid carrying two pails of water on her shoulders to provide water for the ritual washing before dinner. When dinner was ready, he performed ritual washing with a tiny sprinkling of water. When asked why he was so sparse, Rabbi Salanter explained: "One must not be generous with a mitzvah on another person's shoulders."
We know what it is to be a stranger: the insecurity, the fear. The stranger is on a tightrope and does not control the wind. So there is a question about Passover that we must, as Jews, ask ourselves:
What if you were an Egyptian? How would you have treated the Israelites? Would you have been cruel because you could be? Or would you have been kind, even though you did not need to?
For at the seder, many of us were the Egyptians.
Of course, we did not enslave someone else. But most of us were served. We had "help."
Were we kind? How many of us kept housekeepers, maids, others up very late at our seders with no consideration for them, their children, their schedule?
How many of us paid them extra for that work? How many pay less than minimum wage because the person we are employing is an illegal and therefore has no choice? How many of us, in fact, performed the mitzvah on somebody else's shoulders?
After all, we can do what we like; if we are angry, we can yell. If we are annoyed, we can be snappish, abusive, angry.
When a housekeeper has a sick child, do we encourage her to go take care of her child or is taking care of my child more important than taking care of her own? The Talmud teaches that Israel is "rachamim b'nei rachamim" -- merciful people, and the children of merciful people. So at the seder, at our dinner tables, are we Israelites or are we Egyptians?
In the past month, I have asked around, spoken with nannies, housekeepers and people who run placement agencies. I have heard of terrible doings in our community, of Jews -- Jews! -- who have taken workers' passports so they cannot leave the country, of those who have hit their employees, screamed at them mercilessly, refused to give them vacations -- in other words, acted like Egyptians.
Remember, we have been strangers. We know the fear, the anguish, the impotence. We know what it is to be subject to other people's emotions, customs, moods. The callous person exploits that fear; the Israelite calms it.
We know that being rich doesn't make you good. Being rich just makes you rich. In some ways it is harder -- because wealth gives one latitude to be unkind. A rich person can speak to employees in ways one would never otherwise speak to another. But to do so stains our souls and dishonors God. And to do so in our home is that much worse.
In 1966, an 11-year-old black boy moved with his family to a white neighborhood in Washington. Sitting with his two brothers and sisters on the front step of his house, he waited to see how they would be greeted. They were not greeted. All the fearful stories this boy had heard about whites hating blacks seemed to be coming true.
He thought, "I knew we would not be welcome here. I knew we would not be liked here. I knew we would have no friends here. I knew we should not have moved here."
As he was thinking those thoughts, a white woman coming home from work passed by on the other side of the road. She turned to the children and with a broad smile said, "Welcome!" Disappearing into the house, she emerged minutes later with a tray laden with drinks and cream cheese and jelly sandwiches, which she brought over to the children, making them feel at home. That moment -- the young man wrote later -- changed his life. It made him realize that some Americans could be blind to racial and class differences.
The young man was Stephen Carter, now a law professor at Yale, and he recounts this story in his book, "Civility." The tale is retold in Rabbi Jonathan Sacks' new book, "To Heal a Fractured World." The woman was named Sara Kestenbaum, and she was a religious Jew.
What Sara Kestenbaum did was what our tradition calls a Kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of God's name. The opposite is a Hillul Hashem, a desecration of God's name.
The children of the people who work in our homes and in our streets will be the professors, the doctors, the teachers, the mayors. What will they learn about the Jewish community? What will they remember of how we treated their mothers and fathers at a vulnerable time? Will they remember our conduct as a Kiddush Hashem? Will they understand that the Jewish community remembers what it is to be a stranger?
Kiddush Hashem is when we act in such a way as to reflect credit on the Jewish community among non-Jews. It is a Hillul Hashem to be unkind to someone in your power.
We were strangers in a strange land -- not once, not twice, but hundreds, thousands of times. Often we met with cruelty -- but sometimes we met with kindness. We remember those who were kind.
Others will remember if we were kind to them. It is not enough to observe the ritual of Passover and not embody the spirit. It is not enough to have a Shabbat table laden with the work of others. When we open the door, we should open the heart to those who are already in our community and in our homes. Let us demonstrate that we indeed are merciful people, the children of merciful people.
The Talmud insists that one who is not merciful does not deserve the name of Israel. In our homes and in our lives, let us deserve the name of Israel and the blessings of God.
David Wolpe is senior rabbi of Sinai Temple. This article is adapted from a sermon delivered on the first day of Passover, April 13, 2006. You may hear this sermon, as well as Rabbi Wolpe's other sermons, online at sinaitemple.org. For a story on the 100th anniversary of Sinai Temple, please click here.