Not a long time ago, I met someone in Budapest, who was a member of a Jewish community. Let’s call him Jonathan. People looked at him strangely, because he had certain social behavioural problems. He dressed as a homeless person, well, I can tell you, he sometimes smelled like a homeless person. Jonathan also took away most of the food left after Shabbat potluck dinners. You can imagine how he did not fit in well with the community. He also made strange comments in different situations, which people did not understand. In two words Jonathan was a ‘strange fellow’, an outsider, on which almost everybody looked down. At one point, he approached me about a certain issue. He said, he wants to introduce me someone, someone who needs help.
– What kind of help? – I asked.
– You have to talk with him. He needs your support.
I agreed to meet this person, notwithstanding my initial suspicion: “who can be a friend of a strange fellow? Probably an even stranger fellow.” That’s how I met George, who was treating his sick mother at home. I quickly realized that Jonathan cared and supported George and his mother as much he could. He was definitely more supportive to them than the community was to him. I tried to convince the social council of the community to support the family, but they did not respond to my requests. From then on, I regularly visited this family, on his advice. Jonathan therefore gave me my first pastoral care job. I listened to him much more carefully from that time on. I realized that his comments made very clear sense. The only problem was that he did not phrase every detail needed. If someone took the time to listen and understand, he would have found him a highly educated intellectual. After these discoveries, I realized that Jonathan is much more intelligent, knowledgable and sensitive than most of the members of the community.
It took me a while to conquer my initial prejudice, caused by the strange appearance and behaviour of Jonathan. After this experience I realized that there is a clear danger in having preconceptions of people. Social prejudice blocks our unexpected encounters. We have to admit that we never know what can we learn from others. Expectations are the biggest challange in every new encounter.
Martin Buber writes in his famous book “I and Thou”, I am paraphrasing:
“Every anticipation is an obstacle in real encounters. Every means is an obstacle as well. Only when every means has collapsed does the meeting come about. “
I could only learn from Jonathan, and experience his reality, when I left behind my anticipation. We can only have real encounters if we leave our prejudice behind.
I am far from being a role model, but I think most of us, most of the time, cannot overcome these obstacles. The community could not accept Jonathan as a real member. We first judge, and do not listen. We only see aspects of personality which we want to see. Our cultural and social expectations destroy opportunities for real encounters. Fortunately this is not what happens in our Torah portion.
Moses was an elderly person, a raised Egyptian, who joined the community of Hebrews. It must have been a strange experience for the slave nation to accept an outsider as their leader, who did not even share a moment in their struggle. Even his father-in-law, Yitro was not an Israelite. Well, he was worse, he was an idolatrer. But, as soon as he heard about the Exodus of the Israelites, he joined them in the desert. The Torah thoroughly details the encounter, and what he says to Moses after hearing the story:
“He said, “Praise be to the LORD, who rescued you from the hand of the Egyptians and of Pharaoh, and who rescued the people from the hand of the Egyptians. Now I know that the LORD is greater than all other gods, for he did this to those who had treated Israel arrogantly.” Then Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought a burnt offering and other sacrifices to God, and Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to eat a meal with Moses’ father-in-law in the presence of God.
I think this is a real encounter between extremely different cultures. The Israelites could have expelled Moses on the basis that he was raised as an Egyptian. And even if they accepted him, they could have excluded his father-in-law, on the basis that he is a Kohen Midian, a priest of idols. But they did not do so. Yitro is welcomed in the camp. His new experience leads him to accept a new God. But something more crucial happens some sentences later. Yitro teaches team work, and the modes to share responsibilites in leadership. He brings new values and mentality to the Israelite nation.
The Torah teaches us that the position of an outsider is crucial in finding the solutions to different challanges. It tells us that we deeply need new encounters in our personal and communal life. We have to see, that naturally we are full of prejudice and anticipations. Therefore it is one of our biggest challange to really see the good side of new encounters and new realities.
Delivered on 22nd January, 2011, in Finchley Progressive Synagogue,
by LBC student rabbi Peter Radvanszki.