Saturday, November 2, 2013

There Are No Strangers Here, Only Friends Who Have Not Yet Met

Greetings, all.  It has been quite a while since I last posted.  I'm going to try to get more consistent with my posting.

I have, in the past few years, started giving my sermons in a fairly extemporaneous fashion.  I like the feeling of having a few notes, but otherwise "working without a net" and seeing where my mood takes me.  One difficulty with this style, however, is that if someone likes a particular message and asks me for a copy, I'm unable to oblige them.  So, I've gotten this idea of writing blog posts based on my sermon notes.  They may express the same ideas as my sermons, or they may veer off into completely different territory.  Hopefully the experiment will work...

The title above comes from a quote that has made its way around the internet.  As is the case with many  an internet quote, its exact provenance is unclear.  You will find a number of people who claim that it is from William Butler Yeats, but I've found no trustworthy corroboration of that attribution.  I first recall reading it on the wall of an Irish pub called Tommy Nevins in Evanston, Illinois (where I didn't personally find it to hold true, so I never returned...)  It reminds me of a lyric from the original Muppet Movie, in which Gonzo declares, "There's not a word yet/ for old friends who just met."

I've been thinking about the distinctions that we draw between friends, strangers, and family as I've studied this week's Torah portion, Parashat Toldot.  It tells the story of Isaac, Rebekah, and their two sons, Jacob and Esau.  From the moment of their gestation, we read, the boys are at odds with one another; once they are born, their parents only exacerbate matters by playing favorites.

Before the portion has concluded, familial relations will be strained.  Rebekah effectively disowns Esau, Esau swears to kill Jacob if he ever again lays eyes on him, and Jacob feels compelled to flee his home.  It's not exactly a picture of a functional family dynamic.

But sometimes, family is not comprised of those who are bound to us by blood or marriage; sometimes we construct family beyond those conventional confines.  We may have friends whom we embrace as our closest confidants, with whom we feel as comfortable (if not more comfortable) as with our biological family.

Photographer Richard Renaldi has begun a project he calls "Touching Strangers"(see more of the photographer's work here).  It is based on a simple concept: Renaldi stops strangers on the street and asks them to pose with one another as though they knew each other intimately.  At first, some of the subjects appear standoffish.  Eventually, the presence of Renaldi and his large-format camera helps to disarm them, and the images are a striking look at how we can interact with one another on a human level if we are willing to let down our guard.  I do not own or claim any rights to the images below, but I post them here for illustrative purposes:


These photos help to drive home for me that, truly, "There are no strangers here, only friends who have not yet met."  Whether Yeats said it or whether it's the fabrication of some anonymous blogger or bartender, the statement still resonates.

There is a rabbinic principle: sever panim yafot.  Most literally translated, it means "Put on a happy face."  But idiomatically, it can be taken to refer to the value of treating everyone with dignity and kindness.  When we work toward this goal, the sharp distinctions between friends and strangers begin to fade, and we better see ourselves as part of one human family.

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