THE BLOG
09/25/2012 01:04 pm ET Updated Nov 25, 2012

So Close and Yet So Far: Reconnecting to Our Fellow Person

We've all had our painful moments in life. Here's one of mine.

It was May of 1985. President Ronald Reagan had decided to visit the Bitburg Cemetery and place a memorial wreath at the graves of SS-Waffen Nazi soldiers buried there. To placate the Jewish community, he agreed to visit the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp as well.

As a younger activist, I took great exception. Together with Rabbi Ronald Schwarzberg who then served as an assistant rabbi here, we traveled to Bergen-Belsen, spending Shabbat on the outskirts of the camp in its Documentation Center. We declared that we'd remain there to block Reagan's visit. For us, if the president visited Bitburg, he was unwelcome at Bergen-Belsen.

The instant Shabbat ended, scores of German police entered the Documentation Center and forcibly removed us.

The incident was covered internationally. My son, Dov, who was then attending an all boys elementary school, excitedly told me that his principal had invited me to address his class to share what had happened. The administration considered our protest so important, it invited the girls from the separate girls' school to attend as well -- a rare occurrence. I was happy to come; I sensed Dov's pride that his Abba would be giving the talk.

I explained to the students why we had gone, the spiritual power of the experience and the importance of hadar Yisrael -- of raising a voice of moral conscience, of Jewish conscience -- when suddenly a rebbe (rabbi) from the school came forward. "Is the previous speaker finished?" he asked. I responded "yes."

The rebbe then proceeded to tell the youngsters that what they just heard was a Hillul Hashem, a desecration of God's name, as I had not received permission to protest from the "highest" rabbinic authorities, and had spent Shabbat with pictures of naked women (sic). He, no doubt, was referring to the pictures of emaciated Holocaust victims on the walls of the documentation center.

I looked up and saw Dov. Not yet Bar Mitzvah -- Dov was then 11 years old -- tears welled up in his eyes. His knees were shaking. I tried to comfort him but could not. All he could say was, "Abba (father), that's my next year rebbe."

This Yom Kippur I'd like to talk about the desperate need for people to be more sensitive, more feeling, more caring for each other. We live in a time where modernity has shrunk the world, bringing people closer together. And yet, we're further apart.

On Rosh Hashanah, God created Adam. The Midrash suggests that Adam was at first created male and female, one entity who were back to back. Amar Rav Shmuel bar Nachman, besha'ah she-bara haKadosh Baruch Hu et Adam haRishon, de'yu partzufim be-ra'o -- "Said Rav Shmuel son of Nachman, when the Holy One Blessed be He created Adam, he created him double-faced" (Eruvin 19a).

In other words, Adam and Eve couldn't be closer. They were actually touching. And yet, being back-to-back, their faces were turned away from one another -- they could not see each other. They were not alone, but they were lonely. Indeed, you can share a home, a room, a bed with someone and not be alone, and yet be lonely. That was Adam and Eve as they were first formed -- they were physically attached and yet could not interact with each other.

For this Midrash, the creation of Eve was really a bifurcating of Adam, who was both male and female, into two separate entities. As Rav Shmuel bar Nachman concludes, venasro ve'asao gabaim -- "then He split Adam and made him of two backs."

According to this teaching, the real moment of creation was after they were split and they turned around and saw each other for the first time. At that moment they were no longer lonely.

The Midrash resonates for our times. In many ways, the world has been drawn closer together. Through the Internet, for example, we can be on Facebook, we can tweet and e-mail -- we can instantly communicate with one another.

But everything positive has its negatives; the Internet is no exception to this rule. How many friends on Facebook are really friends? And Twitter invites quick soundbites that can hurt. E-mail, too, with all of its benefits, is the most one dimensional form of connection. With the touch of a button people could say words too quickly, words they wish they had not said, words they can never take back. Ironically, the Internet, with its advantages of drawing us closer, has also driven us further apart; we have become "strangers passing in the night," much like the loneliness people often feel in a crowd.

Consider also texting. Just the other week, as Shabbat ended, I saw some youngsters -- whom I care about deeply -- immediately grab for their phone as they texted away. This obsessiveness, almost an addiction, is so great it reminds me of the old days when Sabbath observers wouldn't smoke on Shabbat, but the moment Shabbat ended, they would grab for a cigarette. Now texting has its plusses -- in an instant it can disseminate information. Still, while reflecting a constant need to communicate, it is voiceless; it is missing real interaction.

Perhaps for this reason there is a movement which is gaining some traction worldwide. It's called "unplugging." One day a year, some suggest one day a month, or a week, people are being encouraged to unplug from Facebook, from Twitter, from e-mail, from texting. I believe people are attracted to this movement because they are seeking relationships that are more real, relationships wherein we are not only talking to each other but speaking to one another; where we're not only hearing but listening; not only seeing but empathizing; not only touching but feeling; where, to paraphrase Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, we are not only working partners but existential soulmates.

On its most basic level, the unplugging movement is the message of Shabbat, of Yom Kippur, which is Shabbat Shabbaton. The Torah declares, Va-yechal E-lohim ba'yom ha'shevi'i -- "And God finished his work on the seventh day" (Genesis 2:2). If God finished His work on the seventh day, it means He worked on Shabbat -- and so should we. But the kind of work we do should be different.

Whereas for six days we work on the outer world, on Shabbat we work on the inner world. Whereas for six days we stress existence, on Shabbat we should stress essence. Whereas for six days we yearn for peace, on Shabbat we are at peace. Whereas for six days we emphasize as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel says, having more, on Shabbat we should stress being more.

It's the spiritual meaning of an extraordinary passage in the Talmud which declares Amar Mar, psiya gasa notelet mim'or einav shel Adam. Mai takantei li hadarei bi-kidusha d'vei shimshei -- "The Master said, long strides take away a person's vision. What is the remedy? One can restore vision when reciting kiddush on Shabbat eve" (Berakhot 43b).

The Gemara may be saying that during the week we take long strides in the sense that we're moving so quickly that we fail to see the scenery and take cognizance of the people around us, hence we lose our sense of vision. But as Shabbat enters, ben hashmashot, it returns. We slow down and become aware of the people who are closest to us, who mean the most to us.

Shabbat doesn't only involve outer observance but commitment to its inner message of sensitizing us to others. It's a message that I in my life must do better in achieving as I, too, in the quest to do what I believe to be right, have stepped on others.

And so, on this Yom Kippur, let's resolve to connect, really connect with our fellow person -- our siblings, our children, our spouses, all people. When passing the Atria assisted living facility next door, and seeing a resident sitting on the bench in front, let's walk over and say hello. When backed up in traffic because of an accident, rather than being upset, why not, as Rabbi Joseph Telushkin has suggested, say a prayer that the injured be saved. When seeing a police officer, firefighter or soldier in an airport, why not walk over and say two words we too often forget to say: "Thank you."

The late JJ Greenberg had the right idea when after 9/11 he started asking people to wear nametags so that we not be strangers to each other; so that we greet and begin to care about one another. What a wonderful idea, what a wonderful dream.

Imagine, in this election year, a political world with less mean-spiritedness. Imagine, as people tragically kill in the name of religion, different faiths making space for one another. Imagine different voices who feel passionate about an issue being able to converse respectfully. Yes, imagine a world where people learn to disagree agreeably.

I never heard from the school administration or the rabbi who so hurt my young son. Dov has grown up to become a Torah scholar, writing his Ph.D. on the Midrash Tanhuma. I'm very proud of him. But the pain of that day has never gone away.

One day, one day, we pray, it will all be different; human dignity and sensitivity to others will permeate. It will permeate through the internet, on our cell phones, in public forums and private encounters. That's the dream of Yom Kippur, of Shabbat Shabbaton, of Adam and Eve slowly, slowly turning around and then lovingly facing, really facing each other. If we will it, it can become a reality, for our families, our people, all people.