As an Aish Rabbi my wife and I have a lot of guests at our Shabbat table. And at the beginning of every Shabbat meal, our guests hear me invoke what I call the "Mike Stern Rules": Please take what is in front of you, pass it to your neighbor, and the most important thing of all is to make sure it all ends up by me! (which always draws a nice laugh) Every guest in our home has heard the rules, and feel as if they know this rabbi named Mike Stern.
Mike and I are best friends, and over the years I spent a lot of time at his Shabbat table, where he and his wife Denise took tremendously good care of their guests, making everyone feel extremely comfortable and well-fed. Denise would prepare a first course of incredible bounty and variety, and Mike would jokingly refer to the rules cited above to break the ice, making a connection with the many disparate people at the table (and also to get the food circulating). Mike and Denise are my chesed (kindness) mentors, and I keep them with me always at my Shabbat table through the Rules.
Tragically, Mike and Denise lost their 12-year-old daughter Shoshie a"h last week in a tragic accident, and though I didn't really know Shoshie well, I feel that through the experience of the funeral and Shiva, I got a glimpse into the soul of a rare human being, one created in the Stern image, yet with her own unique spin. Through this experience I discovered a whole new set of rules – the Shoshie Stern Rules:
- Give up your seat.
- Make peace.
- See the good in everyone.
Give up your seat
One of Mike's rabbis, who doubled as a driver in Shoshie's daily 45-minute carpool ride to school, explained that Shoshie never cared about her seat in the car. If someone extra came into the carpool, Shoshie would willingly give up her seat to make the other girl comfortable. The rabbi remarked how rare a trait this is in a child. In fact, he continued that many adults are far too concerned about where they are “seated” – at a meeting or a bar mitzvah, and rarely think to give up their seats for another. "Giving up your seat" exemplifies being concerned for others, not as a detriment to oneself but rather as a beautiful expression of self.
On a deeper level, Shoshie turned this ability to “take a back seat” into a life philosophy of giving others the space to rise to the top and flourish. This character trait is far beyond most 12-year-olds, but as Mike said in his eulogy of Shoshie, "She just got it."
Twelve is an age when girls are often insecure and form little cliques which can be quite hurtful and exclusive. Shoshie was above all of that as well. Shortly after her arrival at her new school in North Miami Beach, though she was a naturally popular girl, she befriended some girls who were not part of the "in clique". Though a brief squabble ensued Shoshie made peace and brought all the kids together. She seemed to be above the pettiness we all sometimes fall into. She showed herself to be a true disciple of the biblical Aaron, who loved and pursued peace.
See the good in everyone
As a picture of this wonderful girl was emerging in my mind, I realized that she came from parents who act with love and kindness to all people, every day of their lives. There is not a garbage man, UPS driver or mailman that has not been invited into the Stern’s house and shown incredible kindness, regardless of occupation or background.
Caring for others doesn't always come so naturally to us. But the Sterns see the good in everyone, as created in the Image of God, a child of the Almighty.
Only by being in touch with the image of God within you, are you able to see that in others.
The Torah says: "Love your neighbor as yourself." The Sages question why the need to end the verse with "like yourself"; just say, “love your neighbor.” The answer is that in order to love others you have to see that you are the same. Only by being in touch with your soul, the image of God within you, are you able to see the image of God in others.
Shoshie saw the good in everyone, and because of this special "Godly vision" she was able to bring people together, love them for who they are, and see them as not competitors, but as true friends.
This past Shabbat, my thoughts turned to my dear friends the Sterns, who were amidst a heart-wrenching mourning period. But instead of the familiar Mike Stern Rules, I invoked a new set of rules at the Shabbat table: the Shoshie Stern Rules:
Give up your seat, make peace, and see the good in everyone.
I’m hoping to apply the Shoshie Stern Rules to my life. May it add merit to her soul for eternity.