Last Friday I went early to my bakery here in Yerushalayim to buy my challot for Shabbat. That morning, as is the case most Fridays, I am of the first customers of the day. The man behind the counter, a Jew in his early 70's with a round face and a Yiddish background, is a most jovial soul. He greets me with enthusiasm despite the early hour. He never fails to share a kibbitz and a warm Gut Shabbos when I check out. This past week I told him how much I appreciated his warmth. I told him that even were the challot not so good it would be worth buying them here for the spirit of Shabbat he imparts with each sale. And then something surprising happened. The smile in his eyes disappeared and his face turned somber. He said to me "Why do you think I greet each customer with so much warmth and joy? It's because if I would not I would break up." And then,with a sigh as he began to tear, he went on, "In another week will be my son's yahrzeit...what choice do I have." I do not know the man's name. I do not know the details of his story. But in that brief moment as I checked out with my Shabbat challot we shared an intimacy deep and compelling. We met for a moment in what Buber would call an I-Thou encounter. I felt his sadness and he felt my care. We were for a brief moment, one. And when I left, I took more than the challot with ,me. I carried his grief.
In the second of the parshiyot of this week, Kedoshim, we read of the mitzvah "V'ahavta l'rayacha kamocha", "Love thy neighbor as thy self". No mitzvah is more central to Judaism than this one.In fact Rabbi Akiva said of this imperative "This is the great principle of the Torah".Typically we will assume the mitzvah to love our neighbor challenges us as to action, what we need do to enhance another's circumstances. Often we miss the point that the imperative to love another is as much manifest in how we do something as in what we do.
Love calls for engagement. It demands intimacy in the encounter.
Buber called the encounter where two persons rendezvous from the essence of their beings "meeting". In meeting I and the person I am relating too are fully present to each other. We are not hiding ourselves in our actions. I am not doing for you or you for me so we don't really have to be with each other, as is sadly so often the case. No, I am doing for you so as to be with you. The action is a way to manifest my presence to you and you to me, not a means to avoid the awkwardness and discomfort of presence.
You say you don't know what I mean. Let me give an example, one of which I am most familiar. A man lays sick in a hospital ward. His situation is grave, the outcome uncertain. His wife and/or children are busy running around his room doing anything and everything to aid him in his circumstances. To the observer it appears they are showing love. After all they seem tireless in their resolve to lessen their husband and/or father's distress. Yet lets look at the situation a bit closer. The man in the bed is sufferring. Illness robs a person of his/her esteem and sense of value.Moreover in many situations a person is fearful and anxious about the future. What does a person need in those times of duress more than the compassionate word, the chance to share worries, the opportunity to feel accepted in their state of debility, to know they are not just patients to be cared for but persons of value even while compromised.What are the wife and children doing in our example? With all the efforts they are making to 'help' they are in fact, perhaps unconsciously, running away from the intimacy the sick man most needs to find comfort. They are too fearful to stop, fearful of the silence, fearful of the intimacy of the 'meeting' with their husband and father. All their actions at the core are designed for avoidance. And the message the sick one takes in, at the unconscious level if not consciously, is that "I am not okay...My situation is too difficult to even talk about."
Over and over again we make the mistake in our lives of loving another by doing for them rather than being with them.
To love our neighbor as ourselves requires we risk investing our self in the moment with another and being behind our eyes.
I have a pet peeve in this regard. Like you, I am greeted many times over the course of a Shabbat with a "Shabbat Shalom" or a "Gut Shabbos". At one level receiving the blessing from another is a wonderful gift and affirmation. It makes me feel good about myself. I feel I belong. I have community. Yet all too often the person extending the Shabbat blessing is, at the very same time he is speaking the words and shaking my hand, looking away, perhaps at someone behind me yet to be greeted or to the place s/he is headed towards. The loving act of extending a Shabbat blessing then feels like a dis rather than an affirmation. I feel invisible, as if I don't matter enough to be with me even in these few seconds of greeting. The content of the blessing, a sign of respect, is in direct contradiction to the context in which it is given, a context which fosters a sense of diminishment.
How we do for another matters as much as what we do.To love our neighbor as our self we need to give our selves as much as we give our resources to them. We need to focus on context as much as content.We need to be present, fully present, to the ones we care for and to each other!
Was it Woody Allen who said, "80% of success is showing up?" We might paraphrase and say, "80%of loving is being present!"