Treating Each Other With Extraordinary Respect

By Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman

In “The Rabbi’s Gift,” Scott Peck tells a story about a monastery that had fallen on hard times. The building was crumbling, and the order was shrinking. Only five monks remained. A rabbi from a nearby town used to spend time meditating in a hut in a forest that was next to the monastery. One day, one of the monks paid the rabbi a visit. He hoped the rabbi would have advice for him about how to save the monastery.

The rabbi listened compassionately. He could commiserate, because few people came to his synagogue anymore. The monk and the rabbi shared stories and studied together, and when the visit came to an end, they embraced each other and wept. The monk asked the rabbi for some piece of wisdom that might help. The rabbi only responded, “The only thing I can tell you is that the Messiah is one of you.”

When the monk returned to the monastery, he told the others that the rabbi said the strangest thing—that the Messiah is one of them. The monks were perplexed. Looking at each other, the monks wondered who among them was the Messiah. They thought and thought, and then they began to treat each other with more respect—because it was possible that one of them was the Messiah.

When people occasionally visited the monastery to picnic or wander on its paths, they sensed this new energy. This extraordinary respect seemed to permeate the monastery. They sensed it was a holy place. They kept returning, and they began to bring friends. Many people now visited, and they began to talk with the monks. The community grew, and everyone in it now held a deep appreciation for one another. All because they believed that any one of them might be the Messiah.

As Rosh Hashanah approaches, we consider the possibility that some hidden person among us might be the Messiah. And we too might begin to act with more kindness—because this person, in Jewish tradition, is the one who will usher in a world of peace, a world without poverty and war, a utopian society rooted in justice and compassion.

We might develop personal and communal expectations that we should reach out to someone in need, that we should bring a meal to a newcomer who is ill, give an elder a ride to synagogue, and sit with a widower when he is in mourning. We would be quick to welcome the stranger and slow to criticize our neighbor.

We would foster real connections with each other, cultivate deeper friendships, and become more open, more vulnerable, and more trusting. We would prioritize a sense of mutuality and cooperation.

From this place of respect and love for others, we could immerse ourselves in social justice work. Our organizing and activism would be based on the belief that every human being should be treated with dignity, experience real freedom, and live in a society that is just and compassionate. We would know that all people should be able to drink clean water and breathe clean air, and enjoy decent health care, shelter, and food to eat.

Let us begin to greet our neighbor, our family member, our friend, the new person sitting alone, and the stranger among us as if they are the Messiah. Because maybe, just maybe, they are.

On behalf of Congregation Shaarei Shamayim, I wish the Madison Jewish community a shanah tovah, a new year filled with sweetness. All are welcome to join us for our High Holiday services and programs, both online and in person. Visit us at to learn more.

Laurie Zimmerman is the Rabbi at Congregation Shaarei Shamayim.

Disclaimer: The From Our Rabbis feature seeks to provide a platform representing the diversity of our community clergy. The views, information, or opinions expressed in the From Our Rabbis articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the Jewish Federation of Madison.