It was one of my first days as a chaplain resident at the University of Virginia Health System. As I visited patients during my regular rounds, I entered the room of a middle-aged man who was being treated for cancer. We were different ages and came from dissimilar communities and backgrounds. I was just 30; he was at least twice my age. I had a strong Jewish upbringing and identity; his was Christian. And I had grown up in the greater New York City area; he had grown up in a rural area in the South.
For the first few minutes, we each experienced uncomfortable silence as we struggled to find points of connection. I asked him what he looks forward to most when he returns home from the hospital. His face lit up as he described the fishing and hunting trips he would take with his grandson, with whom he was very close. He then turned to me and shared his fear that he might be too weak to take his grandson on those trips again. His words made me think of my own grandfather whom I loved dearly, but who was paralyzed for many years with Parkinson’s disease and was unable to take me on such grandfather-grandson outings. We cried together, we grieved together, and we prayed together. And in that moment, I felt a unity and wholeness, a soul-to-soul connection with this man. It was, as Martin Buber writes, an “I-Thou” encounter, an “I-Thou” human-to- human revelation.
We are on the heels of Shavuot, when the people of Israel experienced revelation as God spoke to them from Mount Sinai. But, there was also another revelation that took place, and that was the miracle that the entire nation surrounded the mountain, as the midrash recounts, “K’ish echad, b’lev echad” — unified, as if one person, with one heart. Seeing God was miraculous, but coming together and being able to connect in unity with one’s neighbor’s heart and soul was no less momentous. We are commanded to express this unity with our fellow humans by loving our neighbor as ourselves.
Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi asks the obvious question: How is it possible to love another as much as oneself? After all, it is natural to care for one’s own needs before the needs of others. Yes, people are giving and charitable, but do you know anyone who has purchased a home or car for their neighbor before purchasing one for themselves? Rabbi Shneur Zalman answers that if we strip away all externalities, our essence is actually the same as our neighbor’s. We all have the tzelem Elokim, a manifestation of the Divine within each of us.
While God no longer reveals himself to us from mountaintops, He does reveal himself through our human-to-human daily encounters and connections with one another. When I want to feel God’s presence, I often think back to that visit at the hospital. Sometimes connecting to a neighbor, or even a stranger, can be a glimpse of the Divine.