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Look into a Stranger’s Face and See a Brother or Sister

By Rabbi Mitchell M. Hurvitz

A rabbi asked his students two thousand years ago: “At what time should you recite your morning prayers?” The students began to provide varying answers: “When there is enough sunlight to distinguish between colors of the grass.” “When there is enough sunlight to note the distinction between colors of the leaves.” “When there is enough sunlight to see your hands stretched before your face.” Etc., Etc. Etc.

The rabbi listened patiently to each of his students, admiring their clever answers but always responding that they were “wrong”. Finally, the students gave up and asked, “At what time should we recite our morning prayers?”

The rabbi heard their “ritual” question but then answered ethically. “When looking into a stranger’s face and seeing a brother or sister, you can recite your morning prayers.”

Within Judaism, the cornerstone of our observances is how we live an ethical life. The most important Jewish historical experience we routinely recall is our slavery within Pharaoh’s Egypt. From this experience, liturgically remembered in every prayer service and commemorated so beautifully with our annual observance of Pesach (Passover), we constantly strive to remember that “once we were slaves in Egypt.” And for this reason, God commands us to “welcome the stranger” and love our neighbor as ourselves,” for “once we were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Judaism commands us to live the principles of love, respect, and honoring differences. We are also commanded “to teach our children diligently,” and therefore need to ensure that our children understand how to fulfill God’s will in understanding how to respond to differences with love and respect.

Children notice the distinguishing characteristics between gender, race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, disabilities, etc. beginning at a very young age. Our children also readily pick-up the attitudes about these differences as exemplified by their parents, or other family or close friends. If we want our children to fulfill the mitzvah of “loving the stranger,” we must diligently teach them how to cast away prejudices.

Here are five steps to teach our children the mitzvah of “love and respect.”

1) Listen respectfully and answer a question quickly. When the child asks about differences, affirm that the observation is correct, but there are differences within their family. For example, “Someone has darker skin than you, but you have darker hair than your brother.” Don’t dissuade the observation; instead, embrace it and utilize it as an opportunity to teach the reality of differences and how we come to love and respect differences.

2) Teach children overt messages that combat stereotypes. Provide multi-ethnic dolls, toys, and games. Participate in volunteer activities that expose children to diverse people. Switch up traditional gender roles for activities. Provide numerous opportunities for children to interact with other children who are different than them.

3) Don’t tolerate teasing or rejecting someone because they are different. Be firm that this is not “how a good person behaves.”

4) Teach children how to challenge prejudice. Demonstrate how we utilize words to face down others who say something biased towards another. Help your children talk about differences. Ask questions about something they’ve watched or read in a book. Share how you may have had to face down a prejudice. Teach them to “walk in someone else’s shoes” and see through “others’ eyes.”

5) Don’t be “blind” to the reality of differences. There is an understandable desire to deny that there are differences between people. However, this is simply untrue. The “stranger” does exist. People look different, act differently, eat differently, dress differently, pray differently, etc. It may be politically correct to try and deny “differences,” but it is like the proverbial ostrich sticking their head in the ground. Avoiding the reality that differences exist will prompt us to fail in teaching how our children should fulfill their mitzvah of love and respect. Instead, the assumed “false blindness” will result in a child not being prepared to challenge prejudice and honor differences appropriately. We wouldn’t pretend that junk food is good for you, smoking is ok, or not needing to do your homework. We have to be constantly mindful of how we can teach and reinforce the lessons of “seeing that the stranger is also our brother or sister.”

B’Shalom U’vracha – With Peace & Blessings!
Mitchell M. Hurvitz

Senior Rabbi Temple Sholom
Past President of the Greenwich Fellowship of Clergy

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