The Stranger Within
By Yehudah Plaut
October 13, 2005 (Yom Kippur)
The handful of lines I have read from the Torah today can carry the whole significance of the Torah by themselves. Earlier in this chapter 19, taken from the beginning of the portion Kedoshim, we read the Golden Rule, “veahavtah lereachah kamocha” (love thy neighbor as thyself). When a man asked Hillel, our noted Chacham, to teach him the whole Torah while he stood on one foot outside Hillel’s door, Hillel replied, “Do not do unto others as you would not want done unto yourself. This is the whole Torah, the rest is only commentary. Go, learn it”.
Surely it is even a more sophisticated and further understanding of the Golden Rule to apply it to a stranger, one who is many times removed from a friend or a neighbor. We do not know the
stranger, but the stranger is surely mankind as a whole. With these lines, the Torah has removed the personal aspect of the Golden Rule dictum and applied it to all we meet and with whom we do business. The application of embracing the world is not just in speech; we are not just to “love” others as ourselves. We all know the caprices, twists and delicate nuances of this very pregnant word. However, the operational word is different here. Just in case there is a doubt about the true meaning of the Torah, we are commanded to treat others fairly in business, a declaration that connotes interaction with others or rather all interactions with others. The subtlety of the differences between dealings with those for whom we care and those for whom we do not even know is erased in one fell swoop. There is no wiggle room here. And in case you still might dwell on the continued vagaries possibly implicit in the “veahavtah lo (meaning “ha gaer”, the stranger) kamocha”, “to love him/her as yourself”, the lines continue to elucidate exactly what your actions must be in regard to measuring and weighing. I repeat there is no wiggle room here.
There is always a question as to why special readings are selected to be read for our important holidays. There is an obvious connection in these few lines. After all aren’t we, here in turn, spending the day weighing and measuring ourselves against a set of ideals. In the same way that we are directed to be fair in our weights and measures when dealing with mankind, we must do the same when looking at ourselves. It might not be so far a leap to consider that our deviations from the righteous path are an acceptance of the stranger within ourselves, the one who fails to live up to the regime of constant self examination implicit in someone who leads a perfect life; and we all note that none of us qualifies. Isn’t one of the messages here to be easy on ourselves and by extrapolation on others, because we know that even if we try our best, we will surely fail to be perfect? To be sure, we do ask for forgiveness in advance of even committing the smallest of deviations from the path of right action and sanctified living. This is the genius of this marvelous day to which generations of Jews have entrusted their souls. Even if we don’t get it, if we can’t expose the foibles of our inner sanctums to the broad daylight of our prayers, we are covered because God has our back. Simply in reading the words of the service today, we give, at minimum, lip service to our mission; but, this lip service is extracted in the way of a contract which protects us and frees us to try and live better lives, even at the expense of the stranger within.
I am thankful that I, as I have aged, have finally come to accept and learn from the many years of Yom Kippur now under my belt. It constitutes the ultimate stop exercise, the cosmic pause of self-reflection, the storing of energy to be released in a renewed and more directed way. With all I have to consider every year, I realize that there is a fairness to the process which is nonthreatening and eases the mind. It is fascinating that the act of fasting adds the physiological weakening of the body to the mix, making us that much more vulnerable and at the same time more amenable to what the waning energy of our body demands. Our mental focus wavers as the day rushes on; and, the repetitive nature of the chant becomes a wordless invocation of our self-examination.
And, the stranger within us becomes at one with all, as mankind melds into the forward flow of righteous action and virtuous deeds. Let the healing continue. “Gamar chatima tovah”.