Three Faces

It’s been my privilege to walk the streets of Jerusalem this week.  While enjoying the beautiful spring weather and exchanging greetings of “Chag Sameach” with strangers, I’ve made a point of noticing not just the buildings and the street names, which are always beautiful and intriguing, but also the faces of people I pass on the street.  As I walked down Rechov Yafo from the Machane Yehudah outdoor market to the Old City, I saw three particular faces that have stayed with me.  These faces have left me wondering about the people behind them, and have reminded me to look beyond crowds to try to see the human beings who comprise them.

The first face I saw was that of a young man, an Orthodox Jew affiliated with the Chabad movement.  He had set up a small portable table on one of the street corners with worn and tattered signage produced on a home printer hanging from the edge that was flapping gently in the breeze.  The sign advertised that the man could arrange for the sale of chametz to a gentile on behalf of his rabbi.  The spot in the city where he had located his table was not in the most religious neighborhood, so clearly the man was seeking to inspire people to sell their chametz who likely wouldn’t have done so on their own.  He chose a busy intersection, but very few people stopped by to sign the form, despite that there was no charge for this service and no hard push for tzedakah for the yeshiva.  I stopped for a while to look at his face, wondering what he was feeling.  Was he discouraged that so few people wanted to sell their chametz?  Was he wondering why he, a true believer and follower of the law, had to persuade others to fulfill a mitzvah so central to the observance of Passover?  As I was looking at his face, a man stopped by the table to sign the form and arrange for the rabbi to sell his chametz.  The man’s face lit up with joy.  What was he thinking?  Was he contemplating that he had come one step closer to bringing the Messiah by persuading one more person to observe the law?  Was he thinking that his diligence and effort would please his rebbe?  I wondered…

The second face I saw was that of a woman who seemed to be not young but not elderly.  She, like so many others, had a cell phone pressed to the side of her head and was engrossed in conversation.  That’s not an unusual site in the times in which we live.  But this woman had a look of anguish on her face and tears streaming down her cheeks.  I couldn’t hear her voice, since it was muffled by her hair and gentle sobs.  Why was she crying?  Maybe it was not anguish she was feeling, but joy.  Had she heard good news?  Had she just experienced reconciliation with a family member or friend?  Or was I correct that she was feeling anguish and had just learned about a tragedy, or perhaps was having an argument?  Perhaps she given over to unbounded or even inappropriate expressions of emotion when having ordinary conversations?  What could be prompting her tears?  I wondered…

The third face I saw was that of an old man walking slowly down the street using a cane.  His steps were excruciatingly slow, perhaps an inch or two at a time, more of a shuffle than a walk.  It wouldn’t have been out of place to worry that he would fall down.  Right behind him, though, was his aid pushing his wheel chair.  By itself, that might not have been a site to notice, as the aid could have been acting as the safety net for his charge.  But the man’s face revealed a determination chiseled into his features.  Each step was accompanied by grit and ultimate effort.  Was he feeling pride at being able to move on his own?  Was he feeling desperation or at what could have been one of countless attempts to ambulate on his own?  Was he feeling worry that if he couldn’t make it on his own he would be forced to sit in his wheelchair, and endure a crushing loss of independence?  Was he hoping to impress his children that he could still make it?  I wondered…

When I’m in crowds, I tend now to look more at faces than at the bulk of people I see.  I try to imagine who they are and what stories they could tell.  I contemplate what I can learn from them that could be helpful and insightful, even if I can’t know with certainty that my speculation is right or wrong.  Looking at faces has caused me to see the human beings in a crowd, and has reminded me of the ancient Jewish teaching from the Mishna that rather than creating a human race, God created at first one person to teach that each life has a measure of holiness and value and that each person can impact our lives in a unique way.

So I urge you to spend some time looking not at crowds but at faces and the human beings who bear them.

2 thoughts on “Three Faces

  1. What a wonderful reminder of the teaching from the Mishna about the value of individual lives. This is particularly relevant today when when many follow “thought leaders” blindly without considering their own worth or the value of those who are vilified for having different opinions.
    Chag sameach

  2. Very beautiful, Rabbi. You not only looked at people, you actually saw them. That is sometimes something only poets and artists do. I wonder what would have happened if you had also spoken to them to, to acknowledge their existence, to show them you cared and to ask them to tell you their story. Hag Sameach to you and your entire family in Beloved Jerusalem.

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