Neve Shalom Special Needs Program

No Them

By Rabbi James Stone Goodman

We are taught to be sensitive to the stranger, we all came from strangers (Genesis 15:13). We are taught not to oppress the stranger, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt (Exodus 22:20). But I came to understand that there is no stranger. There is no them, there is only us.

My teacher taught me that every single thing in creation is a vessel. It contains. It contains a life force, it contains an inner point of wholeness; there is an aspect of a human being that is inner and it is never partial, it is never diminished, it is never broken because it is life itself and all life is Godly.

That's not to say you can't push the hand of creation, or the hand of God for that matter. My teacher used to say that God hovers over every living thing and makes only one demand: grow. Sometimes the growth needs a little stimulation, a little nudge, and that is what we do. We give it a nudge, we remind people that God is always present; we may impose more expectations on ourselves but God has only one expectation of us: grow.

It's a gentle demand because the way it is expressed in the Jewish literature, it is no demand at all. The story literally reads, each herb and tree has an angel in heaven who strikes it and says to it, "grow!" (Me'am Lo'ez). Or there is a version in the midrash: there isn't a blade of grass that grows that doesn't have a star in heaven that strikes it and says: grow (Bereshit Rabbah 10:6).

God hovers over the grass and demands: grow. That's the short hand way of saying, the grass grows by nature. The angels, messengers of God, hover over the grass and demand: be your nature. It is not even a demand because it is asking only that the grass be grass, grow. Grass grows, it's nature, this is how it works.

So there is no demand really. There is only nature. So, there is no stranger, there is no them, there is no brokenness, there is only God, expressions of the ultimate and the holy through the particular, there is no partial, this is an iconoclastic set of ideas.

There is no stranger.

Our synagogue, Congregation Neve Shalom, meets these days on the grounds of what is called the Rainbow Village, cluster housing for the developmentally disabled, what used to be called the St. Louis Association for Retarded Citizens.

The first day we were there, one of our little boys, he was eleven years old, came up to me. "Thank you for bringing us here," he said (not everyone wanted to move onto that campus), "I used to afraid of them. Now I am not afraid."

"That's beautiful," I said, then I took him aside and I said, "there is no them. You know that, don't you? They are us, do you understand what I'm saying?"

Eleven years old, smart boy, he looked up at me, thought for a second, and said, "yes, I do. I do understand."