Touching Strangers: Chutzpah, Radical Hospitality, & “My Best Friend Has Wheels!”

rabbi-latzThis post was originally given as an Erev Rosh Hashanah sermon by Rabbi Michael Adam Latz at Shir Tikvah Congregation.
Six years ago, photographer Richard Renaldi took an enormous risk. With his camera and his heart, with vision that could see the art of the human soul, he started taking pictures. He decided to do a photographic essay of people. This is hardly new. But Renaldi’s subjects where strangers, people he literally talked to on the street, in coffee shops, at bus stops and in Grand Central Station. He invited these total strangers to pose together, while touching one another; holding hands, arms embracing, demonstrating physical affection.
In one photo, a young tattooed US Marine enfolds his arms around a woman in her 20s, her colorful summer dress flowing to her sandals.
In another, poetry teacher Brian Sneeden was a bit baffled as to why he was asked to pose with 95-year-old retired fashion designer Reiko Ehrman. And yet, his heart stirred and he felt himself open up. 
“I felt like I cared for her,” Brian says. “I felt like it brought down a lot of barriers.”
One picture has a young African American teenager holding hands with a beautiful blond haired slightly older woman, dressed professionally, both radiating a fierce tenderness and gentle certitude.
“It was a good feeling,” says Dominek Tucker.
Adds Jenny Wood: “And it was nice to feel that comfort.”
And in one more, Hunter, a young European woman in her 20s with her eyes closed, resting her head on the shoulder of Margaret, an African American woman in her 40s, while Abigail, another young woman in her 20s has her arms intertwined with Margaret’s, her long straight blond hair a contrast to Margaret’s black curls. The photo is beautiful, intimate, aching (quotes above from Huffington Post article, July 16, 2013).
“Renaldi’s unusual photographic formula,” writes Priscilla Frank of the Huffington Post, “reveals the unlikely ways the body and the heart can influence each other. For a brief moment two strangers feign camaraderie, yet many of the resulting images reveal a genuine connection. (Priscilla Frank, Huffington Post, July 16, 2013).”
Like a bird who collects random bits of twigs and leaves and branches to craft a nest for its young, Renaldi is collecting stories and nesting them into a revolutionary photographic essay of our generation called, “Touching Strangers.”
“Most photographers capture life as it is, but in these strangers, Richard Renaldi has captured something much more ethereal and elusive. He shows us humanity as it could be—as most of us wish it would be—and as it was, at least for those one fleeting moments in time (CBS Evening News, August 8, 2013).”
Our own Sylvia Horowitz teaches, “A photograph is the artifact of a relationship (personal conversation, August 23, 2013).”
Touching strangers.
Touching strangers is not new for the Jewish people.
3,000 years ago, this is precisely what Abraham and Sarah, our Jewish ancestors did when they ran from their tent and greeted three men as they trudged through the desert heat. History’s first act of hachnasat orchim—radical hospitality—and the trajectory of the world changed forever.
Sarah and Abraham’s tent, you may recall, was relatively quiet. They were getting on in years. Abe was healing from his circumcision three days prior; Sarah was managing their home. The sounds of Ishmael’s cries and Isaac’s laughter did not yet fill the desert air or the chambers of their hearts.
So when Abraham saw three men coming over the hill, he rushed to greet them. He and Sarah bathed their feet, welcomed them into their tent, fed them dates and figs, goat stew and barley beer. They invited them to rest on their journey, sat and told stories, gave them food and drink once again before the men were on their way.
To us, this act of hachnasat orchim—radical hospitality—hardly seems revolutionary. But in ancient times, it was. Strangers were to be feared; bandits and marauders they could be, thieves or murders or worse—according to the early rabbis—they could be idol worshippers!
Remember—these are the days following Sodom and Gemorrah, where Talmudic sages teach us God destroyed the cities for their lack of hospitality, for their inexcusable hostility and violence towards guests in their city.
The term Radical Hospitality can trip some people up. It isn’t that it is radical in the sense of revolutionary—though, we all know that being authentically welcoming can be a transformative act; here, we use radical in the deepest, purest sense of the word: traditional, core, essential hospitality. We return to the roots of our commitment to hospitality, to the voice of the Divine, the texts of our ancestors, and the stories that shape our Jewish lives.
We don’t know why Abraham and Sarah were motivated to be gracious and welcoming at that moment. Rashi suggests that Abraham was waiting at the entrance of his tent because he was predisposed to being hospitable; in contemporary parlance, we’d probably call him an extrovert. Perhaps Abraham felt called by God? Sarah, the Midrash teaches, made sure that the flaps of their tent were open for all to see and she encouraged Abraham to pitch their tent in well traveled places. Maybe Sarah believed in their abundance, that they had more than enough to share. Perhaps she liked being in the hustle and bustle of a busy desert road? While the sages try to imagine Sarah and Abraham’s motivation, the answer is ultimately lost to history.
What we do know is that Sarah and Abraham’s opening their tent was a rather chutzpahdik thing to do! But it wasn’t chutzpah in the sense of simply doing something bold or brash; it was act of what the Talmud calls chutzpah klappei shamaya—holy chutzpah directed to the heavens! Chutzpah that is agonizing and brilliant and transformative, chutzpah that flies in the face of convention, holy chutzpah that is the response of courageous compassion and overwhelming love.
The ancient rabbis teach, “Ahavah m’kalelet et ha-shurah…” Overwhelming love disrupts the usual way of behaving. (Midrash Bereshit Rabbah, Vayera, 55:8)
Overwhelming love changes everything.
The rabbis of the Talmud argued more than 1,900 years ago, that the generation preceding the coming of the Messiah will be one in which this type of “chutzpah prevails” (Sotah 49b). Human redemption is predicated upon equal parts chutzpah and love.
Rashi teaches that the whole world was on one side—people were driven by fear, motivated by scarcity, wary of strangers and traditions different than their own. Abraham was on the other side: (Rabbi Carl Perkins on B’reishit Rabbah 42:8, referring to Gen 14:13). Embracing the wanderers, touching strangers in the desert crossed an ancient boundary of isolation and exclusion. In defiance of fear, Sarah and Abraham responded with compassion.
Simon Sinek teaches that what we do serves as the proof of what we believe.
What we do serves as the proof of what we believe.
Hachnasat orchim—Radical Hospitality—is the proof of what we believe.
So important was this mitzvah of hospitality, the Talmudic sage Rav Dimi taught: Hachnasat orchim takes precedence over the Beit Midrash—the house of study! Not to be outdone in a clever game of rabbinic one-up-mans-ship, Rav Judah taught in Rav’s name: The welcoming of guests takes precedence over welcoming the Shechinah, the Divine presence of God herself (Shabbat 127a).
Perhaps Newark, New Jersey Mayor Cory Booker was channeling this Talmudic debate when he said,
“Don’t speak to me about your religion; first show it to me in how you treat other people.
Don’t tell me how much you love your God; show me in how much you love all God’s children.
Don’t preach to me your passion for your faith; teach me through your compassion for your neighbors.
In the end, I’m not as interested in what you have to tell or sell as I am in how you choose to live and give.”
Here’s the secret of Radical Hospitality: It’s not about them. It’s about us. Every single one of us perceives ourselves as the wanderer and the stranger, the outsider, the wondering one: Do I fit in? Am I worthy? Am I enough? Tolstoy was correct—all great literature is either about setting out on a journey or a stranger comes to town. In our case, it’s both!
Radical Hospitality is a spiritual practice because it demands—demands—we embrace our own power to welcome others, to look beyond ourselves to practice empathy and compassion to others as spiritual disciplines. For others, and ultimately, for ourselves.
It is an act of profound courage to open our hearts, especially because each of us bears wounds of loves lost, broken hearts, grief. But we keep going! We don’t stop being kind to each other, we never stop welcoming the stranger—the mitzvah the Torah teaches more than any other, we keep going because this is the essence of our humanity.
Hachnasat Orchim—Radical Hospitality—is about seeing the stranger in front of us as having the potential to be loved. It’s what Antoinette Tuff did on a hot August day when a young man with a gun walked into her Atlanta school with enough ammunition to murder every child, every teacher, every office worker and administrator in the school.
According to Petula Clark of the Washington Post, (August 22, 2013), “[Antoinette Tuff] calmed him. She told him that he wasn’t alone in having troubles. Her husband walked out on her after 33 years, she said, and she has a “multiple-disabled” son. She soothed that man holding an assault rifle by telling him, “We all go through something in life.”
“I’m sitting here with you and talking to you about it,” she told him when he mumbled something about no one wanting to listen to him.
As she persuaded the young man to surrender, she said: “We not going to hate you, baby. It’s a good thing that you’re giving up, so we’re not going to hate you.”
She offered to act as his human shield, to walk outside the school with him so police wouldn’t shoot.
She even told him she loved him, cared about him and was proud of him as he began to stand down.”
Ahavah m’kalelet et hashura. Radical Hospitality disrupts the usual way of behaving.
Imagine how the great debates of our generation would be transformed if we practiced hachnasat orchim—radical hospitality—in the totality of our lives, not just our synagogue community:
What would an America look like with everyone truly, deeply, wholly welcome?
How would simply driving in traffic be a more pleasant experience? Or grocery shopping?
How could our conversation about immigration be different?
How might our collective work towards ending gun violence be transformed?
What would welcoming schools look like?
How about our neighborhoods and parks and urban areas?
And what about our congregations, our holy communities?
Our world is full of examples of the transformative power of touching strangers.
Cameron Lyle gave life to a stranger.
“The 21-year-old University of New Hampshire track and field star got swabbed to join the bone marrow registry back when he was a sophomore and didn’t think much of it… He had been told that there was a one in five million chance for patients to find a match in a non-family member.
“Despite the slim odds, Cameron Lyle found out… that he matched with a 28-year-old male cancer patient who doctors said had just six months to live…
“I was surprised, I was pretty happy. I said yes right away… And then afterwards I thought about everything that that meant giving up, but I never had a second thought about donating. If I had said no, he wouldn’t have had a match.”
What Cameron Lyle gave up was his shot-put career. While most donors recover pretty quickly, most don’t lift the kind of heavy objects Lyle throws over his shoulder on a frequent basis.
“Here’s the deal,” explained Lyle, “You go to the [meet] and take 12 throws or you could give a man three or four more years of life. I don’t think there’s a big question here. This is not a moral dilemma. There’s only one answer (Above from Huffington Post article).”
Imagine a world where such exquisite compassion, where touching strangers is the norm.
Ahavah m’kalelet et hashurah. Overwhelming love disrupts the usually way of doing things.
Touching strangers.
Touching strangers means that we confront our fears of each other; that we try, as hard as it can be, to embrace the humanity of each other, to widen the circle of our compassion.
This is what belonging is all about: embracing one another, permitting ourselves to love and to be loved. The opposite of belonging is loneliness. In a New Republic article this past May (May 13, 2013), science editor Judith Shulevitz writes about “The Lethality of Loneliness.”
“Psychobiologists,” she explains, “can now show that loneliness sends misleading hormonal signals, rejiggers the molecules on genes that govern behavior, and wrenches a slew of other [of our body’s] systems out of whack. They have proved that long-lasting loneliness not only makes you sick; it can kill you. Emotional isolation is ranked as high a risk factor for mortality as smoking.”
It is ironic, of course, to be discussing loneliness in an age when we have gadgets that fit into our pockets and can send photographs, videos, and information with an immediacy previous generations could never have imagined. And yet, we are quickly becoming the most plugged in and lonely generation in human history. Not only is this a social problem, mental health problem, and physical problem, it is amongst the greatest spiritual crises of our generation.
In Jewish tradition, we have blessings for everything. Those rabbis were pretty smart. They even created a blessing for the first time you encounter a stranger. “Baruch Atah Adonai, Ma’aseh B’reshit. Blessed are You, The One Who Creates with Intention.” But there are strict rules with this blessing: We are permitted to say it only once when upon seeing this stranger. Why? Because realizing our common humanity, we relate, we are transformed and the second time, we are no longer strangers. 
We Jews are called “Ivrim;” it means, “People who cross barriers.” Our sacred task, our moral responsibility is to break down the barriers of disconnectedness and isolation and loneliness. But that can only be done, like in Renaldi’s photographs, when two subjects are willing to take the risk, however awkward and vulnerable, to open our hearts and hands to touch one another.
This is the essence of Judaism: There are no monasteries in Jewish life; we are a people born for community, called by God to care for each other, to confront loneliness with compassion; to ameliorate suffering with belonging. The Torah commands us 36 times to welcome the stranger—more than any other mitzvah. By contrast, to paraphrase my colleague Rabbi Jason Rosenberg, how often does the statement, “they’re not my problem” appear in Jewish tradition? Exactly never.
That’s why this act of Radical Hospitality is so chutzpadik, so countercultural, because it rises in ethical opposition to narrow individualism and says, “Yes. Every one belongs.” Simply by virtue of being a human being, you belong in our human community. This is the ikar—the essence—of Judaism. We believe in belonging.
That homeless guy on the off ramp of 35w & 46th? Yeah, he belongs. He’s the same mass of cells and blood and bones and breath and hope and dreams and anguish as me. That woman going through a divorce? Yep, her too. The person living with mental illness? Yep, him. The spiritual seeker and wander? Yep, bring ‘em in. The confused, the angry, the bewildered, the doubters, and the believers? Yep, we’ll take ‘em all. The politician who spews things that make us furious and runs counter to everything we stand for and makes our blood boil with incendiary and offensive speeches? Yes, even her.
Radical Hospitality isn’t a membership gimmick and it isn’t the easy tag line of a hip congregation. Hachnasat Orchim is a spiritual practice that requires discipline. We don’t do just once; we practice it over and over and over again. There is a reason it is a mitzvah, a commandment: Because it’s difficult. We all naturally like to spend time with people we know and who know us. For many of us, meeting new people can be challenging. That’s exactly why this is a holy obligation: We surrender to the great spiritual ethic of empathy and compassion, kindness and welcome. A vision of the world as it should be.
Sarah and Abraham made a covenant with God to widen the circle of compassion, to act with holy chutzpah, to embrace the stranger, to keep their tent flaps open wide, even when it was unpopular, even when they were the only ones.
This year, as our congregation explores the world of Hachnasat Orchim, the deep spiritual practice of Radical Hospitality, our task is to keep our hearts and our minds open. We will inevitably bump up against barriers, real and perceived: past hurts, expectations, longing, needs, dreams, the messiness of life. Let us face these barriers with humor, trust, affection, and forgiveness. Our people have been creatively breaking down barriers since Sarah and Abraham first cooked up that desert stew. And we know the reward for such holy work: that, we, too, can touch and be touched, and transformed towards wholeness and holiness in the process.
Six years ago, when our daughter Noa was three and Liat was a few weeks old, we spent a beautiful afternoon at a park near our Seattle home. As I rocked Liat in her stroller, Noa played with the other children on the playground. One little boy, perhaps five or six years old, was in a wheel chair. He was determined to navigate the black top area near the sandbox. Noa was busy chatting with him and together they conjured a world of princesses and spaceship adventures. At one point, Noa came rushing over to me on the park bench. “Daddy, Daddy,” she said with breathless enthusiasm, “My best friend in the whole world,” she proclaimed as she pointed at the boy she had known for less than 25 minutes, “My best friend has wheels!” The young boy’s mother was sitting next to me and tears welled up in both our eyes. Such welcome and tenderness, such lack of judgment and appreciation for the delight of companionship, such exuberant effervescent joy; barriers become opportunities; vulnerabilities become strengths; touching strangers leads to a robust spiritual life.
Radical Hospitality at it’s best.
Shanah Tovah U-m’tukah. Sweetness, abundant sweetness in the year ahead.