My walk home from synagogue on a recent Saturday morning shook the entire way I look at life.
The day was beautiful, and instead of taking my kids straight home, we stopped to play in a park. As children ran around, laughing and squealing, I noticed a woman about my age sitting on a swing. We caught each other’s eyes for a moment and smiled, and then I looked away, a little embarrassed. The woman seemed to be actually playing on the swing.
She came over and stood near me. We smiled at each other awkwardly and she broke the silence. Nodding at my dressy outfit, she asked if I’d been in synagogue. When I answered yes, she thought for a moment. It seemed she was fighting to hold back tears.
“I’m Jewish too,” she mused.
“Great!” I replied, a little too enthusiastically. The woman seemed different, too child-like and slightly off-kiltered. She seemed to have something more she wanted to say, and I cast around for something to draw her out. “Do you go to synagogue too?” I asked.
“I don’t think people in synagogue would want someone like me.”
That did it. “No,” she replied, and started to cry softly. “I don’t think people in synagogue would want someone like me.”
Oy. I glanced around the park, but there was no one else nearby to help me comfort my new acquaintance. Awkwardly, I moved closer to her. I patted her on the back and, injecting a note of jollity that I didn’t really feel into my voice, said “Of course people would want you to be there! Everyone would be so happy if you came! Why don’t you?”
Instead of answering, she just cried harder. After a while, she told me about herself. She had some developmental challenges and was rather unhappy. “I don’t think even God wants me,” she sniffed.
Oy. Oy. Oy. I looked around the park again, wishing with all my heart that a great rabbi or two would suddenly stroll by and explain that God does want her, that she is beautiful and important and special. That the Torah teaches that every person is created in the image of God, that we reflect an aspect of His holiness. Each of us is a universe in ourselves, containing untold wonders.
I put my arms around her and held her close. Using simple words, I tried my best to convey these thoughts. For a long while we embraced. “Of course God loves you,” I murmured over and over again, “God loves you so much.”
She stopped crying and we lapsed into a comforting silence.
“I have an idea,” I said. “Why don’t you come to synagogue next week? We can sit next to each other.”
Instantly, her face fell. “I don’t have any nice clothes,” she said, gesturing to her casual outfit.
“That doesn’t matter at all!” I said, trying to be chipper, but the look on her face said she saw right through me.
Just then, more people from synagogue strolled into the park all dressed up and festive. “Come meet my new friend!” I cried, and managed the introductions. Soon enough, the woman was deep in conversation with other people, who all echoed what I had said: We would all be thrilled to see her in shul, no matter what she’s wearing.
We left the park that day feeling pretty good about ourselves. It was only later that it hit me: Aren’t we all like that woman in the park sometimes? Wondering if we are worthy of anyone loving us? Wondering if other people will accept us? Wondering if even God likes us?
I hear the doubt all the time. “I have so much baggage.” “I’m damaged goods.” “I hate the way I look.” I’ve had several friends tell me over the years that they hated – actually hated – themselves for being overweight. People who say they aren’t bright, are “over the hill,” not spiritual, who feel they have nothing to give.
We cloak our self-doubt in silence. We certainly don’t cry on strangers’ shoulders in public.
We may be more sophisticated than the woman in the park. We cloak our self-doubt, even our despair, in silence. We say nothing to others about the way we’re feeling. We certainly don’t cry on strangers’ shoulders in public.
Yet what if we did voice our doubts, our questions, our raw need? What if we reached out to other people, as that brave woman did? What if we allowed ourselves to think for a moment about our essential holiness, that we are created in the image of the Divine? That we are part of a wider community? That we might, despite our flaws, still be loved?
I don’t know if my new friend will actually make it to synagogue, but I hope she does. I’d like to thank her for making me realize anew that the words I whispered to her in comfort are true for all of us. Every person is unique, important and beloved. Each one of us is a crucial member of the Jewish people. Her local community is waiting to embrace her with open arms, with love and joy, as is the Almighty. And that’s true for all of us.