Everyone hates to be judged, yet most of us do it.
Hillel wrote in “Ethics of Our Fathers”: “Do not judge your fellow, until you have reached his or her place.”
My cousin Sarah recently died five days short of her 34th birthday. She left behind a 12-year-old son, the father of the boy, and her divorced mother and father. She had a brother who killed himself a few years earlier, another brother with heart issues and a close family member who is a pill addict. Sarah’s life was not an easy one.
When Sarah (technically, my first cousin once removed) was around 9 years old, my wife and I offered to have her mother — my first cousin — and Sarah fly out from Long Island all expenses paid to sunny California and stay with us for a week. Just come and have a good time. The plan was Sarah would go to Disneyland and see a taping of a TV show. The works. When Sarah and her mom exited the plane, I noticed that Sarah was holding a small bag over her face — an airsick bag. Her mother said Sarah had been sick during the entire flight.
Heading to our house, she just sat with the bag over her face in the back of the car. When we got home, I showed Sarah to a guest room, where she immediately went to sleep. A few hours later, we woke her for dinner. Still carrying her airsick bag and a little doll, Sarah said she wanted to go home. The rest of the night she sat watching TV and holding the bag and the doll.
The next morning, Sarah’s mom told me Sarah didn’t want to do anything except go back to the airport and go home. After trying to talk Sarah into staying, we all agreed it would be best if they headed home. A part of me was glad to be rid of them. And as soon as Sarah heard I booked them a return flight for that evening, she perked up and had her first meal. She seemed like a completely different person. That’s when my judgments of Sarah really began.
After sending them home, all I could think was how ungrateful she was. And what a little brat she was. I made those judgments without knowing anything about what her life was like. I was convinced she was just a spoiled, ungrateful kid.
Over the next few years, except for sending her a birthday card with $15 in it, I don’t remember much communication. When Sarah got older and Facebook became ubiquitous, I read some of her very dark and depressing posts. She seemed like a very sad person. Once again, I judged and I decided to stop following her on Facebook.
A few years later, her brother came out to Los Angeles and stayed with us for a few days. I helped get him into rehab at the Salvation Army. A few months later, he blew his brains out with a shotgun in a motel room. I phoned Sarah to express my condolences and didn’t talk with her much after that.
Then I found out that she, my Jewish cousin, had found Jesus and was attending church regularly. Her Facebook posts were filled with crosses and Jesus quotes. More judgments on my part. I thought this girl must be so lost even though, admittedly, I knew very little about her. I thought if only she had stayed Jewish blah blah blah blah blah. More judgments.
Then about two years ago, I heard Sarah had cancer. At this point, I had almost zero communication with her, but I did have a trunkful of judgments and stories I had conjured up about her and her life. I thought I knew everything.
I happened to be heading to New York, so I thought, “Why not call Sarah and ask to visit?” Isn’t it a mitzvah to visit sick people? So I phoned and told her that I wanted to visit. She was thrilled. She said, “I’d love to see you.” It had been at least 20 years since I’d last seen Sarah. And so, I rented a car and drove out to Long Island.
“About two years ago, I heard Sarah had cancer. At this point, I had almost zero communication with her, but I did have a trunkful of judgments and stories I had conjured up about her and her life.”
Sarah was living in a tough neighborhood known for its MS-13 gang members. After my first visit, something happened to me. Most of my judgments seem to fall away completely. After visiting with her, I realized how sweet and wonderful this young woman was. She was a beautiful young person with a great smile and a heart of gold. Her friends loved her. Her religion was giving her strength. She had a huge poetic heart. She even had a motto, “Save the world.”
I realized how wrong I had been about her. How so much of what I thought about her was based on misinformation. I made it all up. We visited with each other many more times and spoke on the phone and exchanged email and Facebook messages. She was always so kind and so loving and so fragile. Never ever did she guilt me with, “Where have you been for the past 20 years?” or “Sure, now that I’m sick, you drop by.” Zero. She was just happy to see her cousin, and I felt the same.
As her cancer progressed, she never complained. It just made her sad that she would soon have to leave her son, her friends and family. She said she knew she was in God’s arms and would be protected. Although she told me she didn’t exactly know what that meant, it still gave her great comfort.
Little by little, as her pain increased, communication became less frequent. When she could talk, she apologized for not calling back sooner. I can honestly say that I felt nothing but love for Sarah since reconnecting with her. Without knowing it, she taught me that I needed to be much less judgmental, and that what you think you know about someone is not the whole picture. Sarah was deep.
Then one day I got a call from Sarah’s mom. She told me that according to Sarah’s doctor, Sarah had six weeks to live. I immediately made a plane reservation to go to New York the following week. I figured I’d see Sarah one more time. I figured wrong. Sarah died a few days later.
After her death, I asked one of my cousins about the funeral. He said there would be a wake and then a funeral the next day. I asked if she would be buried. Then I decided to shut my mouth before I started judging all over again because her burial wasn’t what I would choose or how Jews would do it.
Sarah was buried on her 34th birthday. I love you, Sarah. Please forgive me for judging you.