by Rabbi Wendy Spears
This is a quote from Juan Perez to a reporter after 3 kidnap victims were rescued in his Cleveland neighborhood. Perez was talking about Ariel Castro, who owns a house 2 doors down from Mr. Perez and often chatted to him at neighborhood parties. Surface friendliness. No one actually knew the man who kidnapped 3 women and kept them imprisoned in his house for 10 years.
Do we really know our neighbors? I can tell you that of my 5 neighbors, I know one well enough to call her a friend. The others I know by name, but I don’t really know them. This is not for lack of effort on my part. The folks across the street have come over for dinner, but they’ve never reciprocated. I’ve invited the others for coffee and cookies, but they consistently turned me down or canceled at the last minute. I’ve never been in their houses. It’s not in my nature to be suspicious of people, but because I don’t truly know my other neighbors I can’t vouch for their goodness. The street where I live is not a community. I don’t know the others who live on this street at all, not even by name. I wouldn’t recognize them at the supermarket or the gas station. Most of them are at work all day and don’t come home until well after dark. They don’t seem to be home on the weekends, either. I suspect that their houses are really just places to store their stuff. So, if there was a monster on my block, I wouldn’t know it.
I don’t know if this situation is the same for others in different cities around the country. In each neighborhood where I’ve lived over the years in various cities – Los Angeles, Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Sydney – people kept mostly to themselves. In contrast to this, I try to live the truth of two mitzvot (Jewish ways of doing and being) that I value most in Judaism: community and hospitality. I not only enjoy connecting with others to create and maintain community, I feel a responsibility to do this.
We learn one of these mitzvot right at the beginning of the book of Genesis – “It’s not good for a person to be alone.” Later in Genesis, when Abraham sees strangers walking toward his tent, he and his wife Sarah rush around to prepare a warm welcome for them which includes a meal and a foot bath. In my own life, I enjoy hosting holiday celebrations and informal gatherings for family and friends. There’s always good food and good conversation as we deepen our connection to each other. I model these values for my children and see how much the enrich my life.
In this time of Facebook and the other social media venues, it seems like people are connecting with each other. And yet, consistent reports show that they are lonelier than ever before. It takes effort and planning to be in relationships with others. It doesn’t just come automatically. I have friends and family members who are happy to be invited to an event or activity, but don’t return the favor. I have acquaintances who aren’t friends because they put very little effort into their relationship with me. It seems like they are often waiting for a ‘better’ offer when they say, “I don’t know yet what is happening on that day; I’ll need to get back to you.” I don’t think this really has anything to do with me. The people in my life who are willing to be in relationship make the time to do so because they value relationships. They’re not too busy or looking for some other activity. I find that we share other values besides being connected with and hospitable to each other. Being in relationship allows us to reveal our values and deeper selves to each other. This is a risk, but also a tremendous blessing. By opening ourselves to others, we can perceive the divine spark that dwells in our hearts, and welcome God’s presence into our lives.
Rabbi Wendy Spears is a community rabbi in Los Angeles. Find her at http://www.rabbiwendy.com.