Rabbi Charles P. Sherman
Shabbat Bo

God’s instruction to put blood on the Israelite doorposts “as a sign for you” is a reminder to look beyond exterior surfaces and also to let people into our life.

Is What You See What You Get?

Each morning on his way to work a lawyer passes by an old woman selling bagels on the street, and each day as he walks by, the lawyer puts down a dollar bill and hurries off to work without ever taking a bagel. He doesn’t like bagels, but he wants to help out. So every day for five years, it’s another dollar. And the man never says a word. He sees himself as the old woman’s silent benefactor, her anonymous saint. Without ever sharing a word, he knows that his kindness must be greatly appreciated by the poor woman.

One day, after putting down his dollar and rushing off, the lawyer noticed that the old woman was running after him. “Excuse me, sir,” she panted. “Could I have a word with you?”

“I know,” the lawyer said proudly, “you want to know why I always leave a dollar and never take a bagel.”

“Not at all,” said the woman. “I just wanted to tell you that the price has gone up to $1.50.”

While the lawyer sees the woman as a charity case, she sees herself as a merchant. While he wants to be viewed as a philanthropist, the woman only sees him as a customer. They never talked, and despite being a part of each other’s life every weekday for five years, they never knew each other.

Often we find that people are not who we expected them to be, and also that people don’t see us as we had hoped to be seen. It’s fairly easy to form opinions about others on the basis of outward appearances and superficial relationships. But it’s much more difficult to form correct opinions. What we see on the surface rarely tells the whole story.

A person is very much like a house. We can drive by and say, “Oh, what a beautiful house!” or “Gee, what a dump!” But without seeing the interior, we don’t know what the house is really like. In this week’s sedra, God asks the Israelites to put blood on their doorposts as a sign, but a sign of what? That Jews live in that house? Surely, God must know that already. God has just turned the Nile into blood, daytime into night. It’s hard to believe that this same God doesn’t know who lives in any given house. God does not need a sign.

So God’s command that the blood shall “be a sign for you” makes a great deal of sense. According to Rashi, the greatest Biblical commentator, this language – “be a sign for you” – implies that the blood should be placed on the interior of the house, not on the exterior. It was to be a sign, not to God, but to the Israelites, to signify that they were ready to observe God’s commandments.

This symbolic blood said so much about the household, and yet it could only be seen from the inside. From the outside, one would never know about the family which resided within. The most essential information could only be seen by looking beyond the outer walls.

I believe the society in which we live presents a similar dilemma. We find ourselves at the beginning of 2013 in a very hectic, fast-paced, often impersonal world. We don’t have the opportunity to go beyond the outer walls of most of the people we meet. We may see a hundred people a day but only have time to know five or six of them in depth. The rest – well, we’ll just have to go by what we see and make some judgment calls.

The cashier at the grocery store wears too much make-up – she probably has loose morals. You can tell by the way they dress that the kids in that high school are all on drugs. Every driver on the road (except for me!) is either an idiot or drunk, and the guy driving the old, beat-up Dodge is clearly a meth addict. The guy who sits on my right in class doesn’t know a thing; the girl on my left is conceited because she knows too much, and the guy who sits way in the back is anti-social and never talks to anyone. Are we sure they caught the right Unabomber?

There just isn’t enough time to really get to know anyone. Everybody has so much to do, and the technology, which is supposed to give us more time to spend on people and relationships, is actually taking the place of people and relationships. Friends, I believe that a chat room should be something found in our homes, not just on a computer.

The technology itself is probably not bad, but the way that it’s used can be. With voicemail, message-taking beepers, cell phones, and e-mails, people can communicate with anyone at any time and never have to really communicate person-to-person. With Caller ID, we can blow people off without even picking up the telephone.

The small circle of family and intimate friends – those are the real performers in one’s life. The other six billion people become mere props. Someone recently observed, “I meet more people in a year than my grandfather met in his entire life, but he knew more people than I will ever know.”

It is so simple to talk at people and so rare to talk with them. But people need to talk. We need for others to see what we have inside us. The bagel vender cannot enjoy a world that sees her only as a poor old woman. She needs for people to enter beyond the surface and discover that she is really a proud, intelligent businesswoman.

Without making the concerted effort to know the people with whom we interact, we can never make a fair assessment of who they are. Just as the true sign of the Israelites’ devotion to God was on the interior of their houses, the true measure of a person’s worth is what can be found on the inside.

It would be nice – and easier – if what was inside a person was always what we saw on the outside, but that is not humanity’s standard mode of operation. I agree wholeheartedly with Anne Frank that “people are really good at heart”, but too often, friends, that goodness is hidden. So many people are good-hearted and we are never aware of that fact. When someone is able to consistently display what is in their heart, we know it. It is obvious when such a person comes around, because they are so truly rare.

When this is not the case, when we cannot immediately get a handle on someone, it is easy to give up, to not invest our time and effort, and just decide that person is a jerk. It is also a mistake. Whatever is good in the world also exists within the human heart. That is the house in which we truly reside.

But with some, it’s not as much a house as a fortress. Sometimes we do not allow others to enter our fortress. Sometimes we lower the drawbridge, and let others just walk on by. Why do so many of us lock our doors, keeping others outside and isolating ourselves inside? What are the risks involved in opening oneself up to the world?

The answers are different for each individual. Pride can get in the way. Fear can be debilitating – fear of others knowing us and not approving, fear of others knowing us and laughing at us. Leaving the doors of our homes unlocked and open invites the possibility of having our privacy violated or getting hurt. Leaving ourselves open often seems like a similar invitation to pain. Worst of all is the risk that if we get to know someone, we may have to take some responsibility for caring about them, as well as the responsibility of allowing them to care about us.

God said, “This blood shall be sign for you” – a sign for us, a sign posted on the inside. It is our duty as Jews, as human beings who strive to fulfill the image of God, to search for a sign within others. But we have to work at it much harder than God does. We can’t just pass by a home and see what hides behind the walls. We have to actually go inside, friends.

Just as it was intriguing for Cecil B. DeMille to envision the Israelites slapping red paint all over the outside of their homes, it’s more inviting for us to believe that a person’s true nature is on the outside for all to see. It’s easier to believe that what you see is what you get, but it is our responsibility to see the signs of blood that beat rhythmically within every person’s chest, not the red paint carelessly slopped on the outside.

But how do we actually do it? How do we bear witness to that which is invisible to the eye? It seems to me that we utilize very precious commodities which often in this day and age are in short supply – time, energy, and patience. We have to give time and effort to find out what others are about on the inside. Some of us have large welcome mats in front of our doors at home – SHALOM, enter, welcome — but some of us don’t. It is a mistake to pass by every house with no mat and say, “Well, there’s no welcome mat, so I must not be welcome”. Sometimes all a person has to do is knock and say, “May I come in?” The answer just might be “yes”.

The popularity of Talk Radio demonstrates to me how desperate our society is for conversation and companionship. An enormous number of people call talk show hosts just to have someone listen to their stories, even for just a half minutes. Or the proliferation of television ads for psychic hotline. One of them actually calls itself “Psychic Friends Network”. People are willing to pay $3.99 or $4.99 a minute to feel that they have friends listening to them. This is a chance for people to talk, but it’s a false chance. We want our stories to be heard by people who care, not who are being paid to listen. When we give people a real chance, we will hear their stories and know them.

At the Hebrew Union College, one of my sons was taking CPE — Clinical Pastoral Education. He said he stepped into a hospital room one day and was immediately told by the patient, an elderly woman, that he would be wasting his time with her. She told him she did not intend to be very pleasant, and most people don’t like to talk to her. My son asked if he could sit down anyway, and they proceeded to have a wonderful almost-an-hour together.

It turns out another rabbi did not give her the same chance when he came by for a visit, noticed that her hospital food was not kosher for Passover, sneered and left. He never gave her a chance. Whether visiting patients or visiting with friends, you have to ask, “Am I spending time or am I just making rounds?” One rabbi was just doing rounds. Had he spent some time, he would have found there was something in that hospital room a lot more interesting than a non-kosher meal. He would have found a person.

It seems unfair that we’re gifted with five powerful senses, and none of them are aimed at sensing what is most important — the insides of the people by whom we are surrounded. But to use our senses together, to use them patiently, to take the time to really hear what people are saying, to sniff out emotions, to feel pain and taste joy, to see beauty in people, this is the key which opens the door and allows entry. Then the people whom we meet are not props.

What is to be gained from opening our doors, and what is lost by not knocking on doors which are closed, is humanity. Sharing the human experience with others is what we need in order to survive. Very few hermits can stake a true claim at success. Philosophers have written that the human condition is to be alone, to shy away from others, but in order to survive, we must strive for a different human condition and forge a social contract, engaging in the give and take of interpersonal relationships, humanity. It shall be a sign for you — it is a sign for us, on the inside.

Each morning, on his way to work, a lawyer passes by an old woman selling bagels on the street. And each day as he walks by, the lawyer puts down a dollar bill and hurries off to work without ever taking a bagel – he doesn’t want a bagel. He doesn’t even like bagels. He just wants to help out. So every day, it’s another dollar, and the man never says a word.

Except, on the day of the Daylight Saving Time switch-over. It seems he forgot to set his clock, and now he has an extra hour to kill. So he stops and talks to the bagel woman. He learns that she is not destitute, as he had thought. She has money of her own, but since her children have left home, she sells bagels because it fills her time and allows her to meet new people. Her grandchildren are her pride and joy, so is her pet monkey, and she just adores ice hockey.

Now each morning on his way to work, the lawyer leaves home a few minutes early so he can stop by his favorite bagel stand. He still doesn’t buy anything, and he doesn’t leave a dollar. He just talks and laughs and sometimes, as he leaves, the woman slips a bagel into his bag . . . and never says a word.

This message is based on the writings of Rabbi Mark Covitz to whom I am grateful.