Tell me if this sounds familiar: you’re walking down the hall at work, or at the gym, or you’re in the street in the neighborhood, and someone you know fairly well asks “how are you?” We all know that you’re supposed to respond some version of “I’m fine, how are you?” In fact, I’ve discovered around here that some people skip talking about themselves entirely and merely ask back “how are you” as if it really just means “hi”, or a manly nod. My guess is, most of the time, you observe these rules of engagement, but have you ever turned to the person—perhaps after a particularly bad day—and said, “do you really want to know?” or even just taken a deep breath and gone into it? How does the other person respond? Sometimes, I’m sure, they offer a receptive ear and a comforting word, but just as often, I’m sure they’re looking for the escape hatch. Once, at a conference, I had a colleague ask with full ‘pastoral care’ voice—he put his hand on my shoulder and asked “how are you?” and before I could say anything he was off and running.
You know I frequently preach and teach on our obligations to one another, how we should engage with people recognizing them as betzelem elohim, created in God’s image. But let’s face it, frequently we encounter a huge obstacle: the other person. People are disappointing. They frequently live down to our expectations. Whether it’s asking ‘how are you’ but not really caring, or otherwise demonstrating that they don’t really care for our well-being. Perhaps they cut us off, or minimize our work or efforts, or don’t listen to us. Perhaps they appear to be sympathetic or helpful, but for their own gain. Or maybe they just ignore us. Too often it seems that, no matter our intention, we frequently find ourselves engaging with others who just aren’t there. Marisa had a poster in college that read ‘People Ruin Everything’. Sometimes, it seems, that poster is true.
So what do we do? We can’t control others. And while hiding in a cave might sound tempting, it’s kind of hard to work, raise kids, and live our lives in isolation. And besides, as I reminded someone the other day, that’s not what Judaism is about. There’s a reason we have the concept of minyan: we’re meant to live our lives in connection to one another. This is nice when it works, but not so much when we offer our hand out in love and support and find it pushed away.
This week, Moses is confronted with the same challenge. Israel has disappointed him for two generations; he has guided them, shepherded them, protected them from their worst instincts, but his time is running out. He won’t be there anymore. What can he do? He gives them a vision of themselves that is different. He warns them against Idolatry, reminds them of the Decalogue, and gives them a number of commandments, to be sure, but after all that he invokes words that we say every night: “Listen Israel, Adonai is your God, Adonai alone.” And “you shall love The Eternal God with all your heart, your soul and might...” The Shema and the V’ahavta. Moses presents Israel with an image of themselves as God loving, moral, teaching their children to walk the correct path, letting God and God’s commandments guide their actions and thoughts (“you shall bind it as a sign upon your hands, let it be for frontlets between your eyes”). Moses doesn’t just warn or exhort, he paints a picture of who Israel should strive to be. He does what one writer suggests we should do for each other: “what would it be like if we had a vision for each other…” That is, if we could see not just the person as they are, but engage with them as if they’re the person they want to be. I don’t mean imposing some abstract notion of what we want out of them or what we want them to do for us, but deep listening, shema yisrael, and responding to the person within.
This past week as I was driving my son home from camp he referred to one of his friends (lovingly, if that’s possible) as a ‘loser’. I explained to him that he shouldn’t use those words, that it’s hurtful, and chastised, he said he would try. Then I said something that surprised even me. I said, “and I know you will, because I know you mean it when you say you try.” The boy is six, how much can someone expect of a kid that age? And yet, in that moment, I gave him a vision of who he wants to be—someone who treats his friends well, and who takes his word seriously. More than that, I showed him that I take him seriously.
What’s the result going to be? I don’t know. I can’t know. None of us can. But I wonder, if when we’re disappointed by the people we encounter, if we think we’re not being taken seriously, perhaps we should try to cast a vision for that other person, engaging them as they want to be, as they ought to be. Voice a real confidence in them. Perhaps that will help them hear us better, and ask ‘how are you’ from a deeper place.