The Strange and the Unknown

By Boruch Werdiger and Mendel Spalter

Kaua‘i, Hawaii. What is it about this place?

Even the name, the street signs, the local paper, have an evocative vibe. All those H’s, W’s, and U’s make the cadences of Hawaiian sound like it’s the wind talking. It all has this exotic feel to it: something faraway, involving islands, and just foreign enough.

That’s definitely how the tourists feel about this place. Of course, even Kaua‘i hasn’t evaded the smothering embrace of Walmart and Starbucks, keeping the intrepid visitor still nestled in the reassuring arms of Americana. Yet Hawaii has managed to maintain its own unique identity and what seems to be an ability to capture the American imagination (full disclosure: I ain’t American). Israel is the only other place I’ve been to where applause breaks out when the plane comes in to land.

The weather, the beaches, the lush scenery, and relaxed lifestyle definitely have something to do with it, but to me, much of the allure of these islands (and probably most islands, come to think of it), and of the buzz going through the plane before touchdown, has to do with just being different and somewhat alien. Human nature is hardwired to be drawn to things exotic and unknown.

In fact, so much of what we do, and so much of what you’ll read about on this blog, is about just that. We try help people explore the unknown; we forge friendships with complete strangers; we do our best to expose them to ideas and practices that seemed foreign moments ago, to help them uncover forgotten Jewish identities. We celebrate impromptu bar mitzvahs with people we met minutes before.

Shortly after a particularly uplifting encounter, we received word of the awful, awful death of 9-year-old Leiby Kletzky back in Brooklyn, at the hands of someone he had met only minutes before. Leiby was murdered by a stranger he had met on the street.

I was stunned, by the horror of the story, its incomprehensibility.

Of course the analogy is superficial, to say the least, but what does this story say for the allure of the unknown, for airs of mystery, for random acts of kindness, and for reaching out to strangers to create life-changing friendships? What does this story tell me about what I am doing here? I just want to shut the door and go back to bed.

Is the unknown something to be feared, or explored? Can a stranger truly be a friend waiting to be met? Are we supposed to try run away from the world, or to go out and change it?

Of course, balance is key to everything in life. We proceed with caution, we are careful, and we protect the vulnerable. But at the same time, we are hopeful and open, and most times the world turns out to be a wonderful place.

But there is a much more obvious lesson to be learnt here. I know this probably isn’t the first or last time you’ll read this, but the ever-astute Chief Rabbi (and now) Lord Jonathan Sacks, in describing the Rebbe’s work in the context of the post-Holocaust era, once wrote: “TheLubavitcher Rebbe has undertaken the most daring spiritual initiative ever. . . to search out every Jew in love as they were once hunted down in hate. . .”

Or as the Talmud, quoted by my ever-astute co-rover, Mendel, puts it, paraphrasing Leah’s declamation of the righteousness of her son Reuben and its striking contrast with the wickedness of her brother-in-law Esau: “See the difference between my son and the son of my father-in-law.”

There is evil lurking in the world, sometimes even in the heart of Man. Sometimes we’ve got to fight it, but most of the time, we’ve just got to do the exact opposite, doing as much good as possible.


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