I admit I am intolerant. At times I am bigoted towards others. I judge people by the way they look, the way they walk, the way they talk, and an immeasurable amount of other calculated imagery I build up in my mind about them.
For example, if the first time I meet him he is slow to respond or doesn’t have anything profound to say, I place him into my “not so smart” basket. If the first day I meet him he is not dressed well, I place him into my “untidy” basket.
By the end of the day, I’ve filed everyone away in my mental filing cabinet: this one is a helpful person, this one is lazy, this one is smart, this one is stupid . . . the list is endless. Ultimately, there are those with whom I want to associate myself, those whom I want to include in my circle of friends, and, of course, those who are not welcome.
Just over a year ago I moved to a new home, several blocks away from my old one. In our lazy world, I cannot walk that extra block to my old synagogue, so I changed synagogues to one a little closer—a whole block closer.
This new synagogue had a reputation as a place for “the better people”—the rich and famous, the important people, the know-it-alls. You know, that file I labeled “the higher society.” I planned to try out this synagogue, and if I did not like it, I would go to another one (a little further away, up a flight of stairs).
The first time I arrived at the synagogue for prayers, I psyched myself up, preparing to encounter egotistical, snobby men, chattering with their close circle of friends. I cautiously made my way to an open seat and began my prayers.
Ten minutes into the prayer service, a man entered the synagogue. He was someone I’d known for many years—a member of the “misfit” file. He’d never made it in life, or so I thought. He seemed to be morose, not interested in much. I wondered what he was doing here. Or, was he, like me, just trying this place out?
One of those “snobby, egotistical” men slapped this man on his back, grasping his hand with warmth and wishing him “Shabbat Shalom,” a peaceful Sabbath. Another macho man exchanged pleasantries with him and they shared smiles. I was shocked. These guys were his friends?!
A short while later another guy strolled into the synagogue. He is in the “overweight and obnoxious” file. “Misfit” does not even begin to describe this fellow. He was bouncing off the walls, running in and out of the synagogue, as if he could not decide whether to stay or leave. It was a strange scene. He was long on the list of those I do not associate with.
Evidently deciding to stay, he walked from table to table, exchanging a few words with each person, but leaving before anyone had a change to fully respond. From there he went to the next table, then to the next, and then back to the first to finish off the conversation.
But as I watched, he was not treated any differently than anyone else in the synagogue. Everyone responded to him with patience and kindness. I cannot describe how normal these two misfits seemed in the synagogue. There they were not misfits.
I slowly learned that in this synagogue, everyone is equal. There are no misfits in this community.
Today I am greatly ashamed of how I used to think. I became better acquainted with these two individuals, and many others, and have learned that there is much more to people than a label for my filing cabinet. They are complex individuals, with feelings, intellect, needs and wants, just like I have.
Several months ago a member of this synagogue became very ill. He was in a vegetative state in the hospital, while his wife and three children were left without a functional husband and father. On all accounts, it was a horrible situation. Previously this man had also been in my file of misfits, filed in the “never made it in life” file.
What transpired when the man’s illness became known astounded me. I had never seen anything like it. Members of the synagogue visited the man in the hospital daily. Many were deeply involved in the financial aspects of his illness. Every time we met, he was a part of the conversation. The synagogue members constantly said prayers for him. They prepared meals for his family. It is hard to adequately describe the deep sense of responsibility they felt, as if they were all his brothers.
He passed away last night. The communal responsibility and love for another rubbed off on me, and I wanted to attend the funeral home and escort the body to the cemetery. I don’t know why—maybe because I thought most would not be able to take off a day of work.
I arrived a little early, expecting to be the first there. I was surprised, but by now not shocked, to find many synagogue members already at the funeral home. They were not people I could file under “unemployed.” On the contrary, they were well-to-do businessmen. And as the ceremony inched closer, more and more arrived.
Many continued to the cemetery, a half-hour’s drive from Brooklyn. As we stood there, I looked around. Many have the custom that all the tombstones and plots should be the same. In the Lubavitch community, this is strictly kept.
It dawned on me that here everyone is equal. The rich and famous do not get a bigger stone than the poor and unfortunate. There are no files here, just as in my new synagogue there is no filing. Everyone is treated equal in death; so, too, they should be treated in life.
I did a lot of thinking and mental unloading on the way back home from the cemetery. By the time I arrived home, my filing cabinet was much, much emptier, and I intend for it to remain that way.