By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
Dear Rabbi Fried,
I was very touched by a picture posted on AOL this week, showing a hooded African-American man who had fallen asleep on the shoulder of a yarmulke-clad Jewish man on a New York subway. The picture went viral, as many saw it as a restoration of real humanity in a place we least expect to see it. And it was one of the rare instances when something nice actually makes it to the news! Was this religious Jew’s action (or inaction, by letting the man sleep on his shoulder and not moving), based on a teaching of Judaism, and if so, which sources?
— Melissa L.
Many of the mitzvot of the Torah only apply from Jew to fellow Jew, such as the mitzvah to love your neighbor as yourself. The Hebrew word rey’echa, which is often translated as “thy neighbor,” connotes a feeling that someone is beloved by you, and technically applies only to fellow Jews who are family. This mitzvah, however, together with the other mitzvot of the Torah, is intended to go far beyond its technical nature.
The fulfillment of the mitzvot, together with service of God, is meant to refine one’s character and mold an individual with sterling traits which will be exercised across the board, in dealing with Jews and gentiles alike. The sum total of Torah teachings instructs us to identify the “image of God” that is inherent in all people, treat them with the utmost respect and integrity, and reach out to them with a helping hand. This is implicit in “Kiddush HaShem,” the far-reaching mitzvah of sanctifying the name of God in all we do, which forms the underpinnings of the mitzvah system. It is further implied in our mission as an “Ohr L’amim,” a “light unto the nations”; the way we act toward others should be the paradigm modeled by all those around us.
If you ever see an “observant” Jew who deals with others in a dishonest or less than respectful way (sadly, there are examples of this), it is not a flaw in the system itself. His or her actions, rather, reveal that that individual only performed mitzvot by rote or as a societal nicety, but never internalized their message. By not seeing the big picture, they missed the boat.
Rabbi Nissan Alpert, a venerated student of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, was once walking in Manhattan with a student of his own, when he came across a very heavy, drunken man who had collapsed into a sewer ditch and remained sleeping there. Rabbi Alpert went to great efforts to help the man stand up and move to a clean area of the sidewalk where he could rest instead. After this, the student asked the rabbi why he would put so much effort into the respect of a person who obviously had lost all respect for himself. The rabbi, surprised at the question, exclaimed, “He’s also a tzelem Elokim!” (created in the image of God).
Those who watched the observant man on the subway were quoted as saying that when his seatmate fell asleep on his shoulder, he didn’t even flinch for a moment. May we all internalize our Judaism to the extent that to be a mensch is so completely natural, we wear it on our sleeves. Or our shoulders!
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.