The WORD – 1/16/14. If we think about the most stinging insults from the playground to the middle school girls’ bathroom, from the high school cafeteria to the college fraternity house, most of them have to do with things that make people different. Whether it is some rare physical trait, some taboo act or something perceived as disgusting, most epithets are based upon a fear of “The Other” or anxiety over the unknown.

Skin tone, religion, sexual acts, physical deformities, bodily functions, developmental disorders, country of origin, disabilities, socio-economic status and mental illnesses are all fair game when it comes to crafting the perfect insult. After all, what could be worse than being called a gay, black, incontinent, Muslim, one-legged, schizophrenic, blind man with Down syndrome from some faraway, under-developed island nation who has had carnal relations with members of his own family?

The truth is that all of these things, in one way or another, engender fear in most of us. We are all inherently afraid of “The Other” – people who are different from us.

It’s not wrong to feel safer among people who are familiar to us, who share our values and our customs. Were it not for the human desire to do that, I imagine that there would be no synagogues or Jewish communities in the world. And it’s not wrong to be wary of new people and customs until we get to know them and assess them.

It’s what we teach our children – “stranger danger.”

However, just because we like being around people whom we think are like us and we are less comfortable around people whom we perceive as being different, does not mean that we need to use the characteristics of those “others” as our most stinging insults. Sadly, though, that’s what most of us do.

Further, the real challenge is to look past those superficial differences in order to find common ground with someone we judged to be different at first glance. In the coming days and weeks, the calendar gives us two important reminders that our human family has many more similarities than differences.

First of all, this Monday, we will observe Martin Luther King Day. Among the many lessons taught by Dr. King in his lifetime was the idea that we are all God’s creatures and deserving of respect. Here in Summit, MLK Day has become an important day bringing people together in community service. Click here for the complete schedule of the day’s activities for people of all ages and abilities.

Then, in February we will participate in Disabilities Awareness Month with the major event being Shabbat Shalem (Sabbath of Complete-ness) on February 15th. More info will follow.

So, let’s all take these opportunities to build up our community and include some people who might other feel excluded.




About Rabbi Avi Friedman

I am the rabbi of Congregation Ohr Shalom - SJCC, a progressive Conservative and traditional congregation. I am also husband to Jodi as well as father to Gabi, Jonah, Jessica and Ilana. I have been a part of the Summit community since 2005.
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One Response to Name-Calling

  1. Pingback: Name-Calling : The Daily Rabbi, an online pluralistic Jewish magazine

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