Dear Rabbi Fried,

I was very touched by a picture posted on AOL this week, showing a hooded African American man who had fallen asleep on the shoulder of a yarmulke-clad Jewish man on a New York subway. The picture went viral as many saw it as a restoration of real humanity in a place we all least expect to see it, and it was one of the rare instances when something nice actually makes it to the news! Was this religious Jew’s action (or inaction, by not moving and letting the man sleep on his shoulder) based on a teaching of Judaism, and if so which sources?


Dear Melissa,

Thanks for the tip! I looked up the picture and accompanying comments and was also very moved by that scene and what it represents. That Jewish man said just the right thing when asked what motivated him to allow the other man to continue sleeping. It had nothing to do with race or him thinking about any rationale; it was simply a case of another human being who was tired, and he had a shoulder to provide.  This is a case of an observant Jew who has so internalized the teachings of Judaism, and gets the “big picture” that our heritage represents, that he did not need to give any thought whether or not to help another human being…it was obvious!

Many of the mitzvos of the Torah only apply from Jew to fellow Jew, such as the mitzvah to love your neighbor as yourself. The Hebrew word “rey’echa,” which is often translated as “thy neighbor,” connotes a more beloved, family feeling, technically applying only to fellow Jews who are family. This mitzvah, however, together with the other mitzvos of the Torah, is intended to go far beyond its technical nature. The fulfillment of the mitzvos, together with service of G-d, is meant to refine our character and mold an individual with sterling traits which will be exercised across the board, in dealing with Jews and gentiles alike. The sum total of Torah teachings would instruct us to identify the “image of G-d” inherent in all people and deal with them with the utmost respect and integrity, as well as reaching out to them with a helping hand. This is implicit in the mitzvah of “Kiddush HaShem,” the far-reaching mitzvah of sanctifying the name of G-d in all we do, which forms the underpinnings of the mitzvah system. This is further implied in our mission as an “Ohr L’amim,” a “light unto the nations.” The way we act to others should be the paradigm modeled by all those around us.

If you ever see an “observant” Jew who deals with others in a less than respectful way or dishonestly with others (sadly, there are examples of this), it is not a flaw in the system itself. His or her actions, rather, reveal that that individual only performed mitzvos by rote or as a societal nicety, but never internalized their message. By not seeing the big picture they missed the boat.

Rabbi Nissan Alpert, a venerated student of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, was once walking in Manhattan with a student when he came across a very heavy, drunken man who had collapsed in a sewer ditch and remained sleeping there. He went to great efforts to help the man get himself up and be moved to a more respectable area of the sidewalk to use as his abode. After leaving, the student asked why the rabbi would put so much effort into the respect of a person who obviously had lost all respect for himself. The rabbi, surprised at the question, exclaimed, “he’s also a tzelem Elokim!!” (created in the image of G-d). 

It was said about the observant man on the subway by those watching, that when his seatmate fell asleep on his shoulder he didn’t as much as even flinch for a moment. May we all internalize our Judaism to the extent that to be a “mentch” is so completely natural that we wear it on our sleeve (or our shoulder)!


Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried

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