Once an old rabbi asked his students how they could tell that the night had ended and the day begun.
One student said, “I know the day is begun when I see an animal in the distance and can tell if it is a sheep or a goat.”
Another student said, “I know the day has begun when I see a tree in the distance and can tell if it is a fig tree or an olive tree.”
A third student asked, “Rabbi, how do you tell day from night?”
The rabbi said, “when you can look on the face of any person and see in them your sister or brother. If you cannot do this, it is still night.”
I came across this story in the mid-80s while working on a youth leadership project (The International Youth for Peace and Justice Project) that i co-founded in 1985. The project was about giving the opportunity to young survivors of violence (who had, by virtue of their resistance to violence, become activists for peace) to tell their stories of suffering and resistance to young Canadians. It was a remarkable project with many unforgettable moments of moving and compassionate encounter between young and young and between young and old. This story hit me like a ray of light from the darkness. I was both dazzled and inspired. But i forgot the story for many years while i hope that i internalized some of the ethic it represented. Many, many years later i grappled with the philosophies of Martin Buber, Emmanuel Lévinas, Mikhail Bakhtin, and others. And i found in each something that struck me powerfully as truth. Buber wrote about I/Thou as an ethic of being that guides me still. Lévinas wrote of the face-to-face encounter as calling forth our ethical responsibility to one another. And Bakhtin wrote of "art and answerability" by which he was describing our ethical obligation to communicate with each other. It is no easy walk to read and come to understand these philosophies and Lévinas is a particular challenge. I love Buber's and Bakhtin's writing. I can't say i love Lévinas though i have deep admiration for him. In remembering this wee Hasidic folktale, i can see that it contains so much of the truth that i found also in the philosophies of these luminaries. I know that Buber knew this story since it is apparently in one of his Tales of the Hasidim collections (i've not been able to find in amongst the over 1,000 tales found therein). And given Lévinas familiarity with Buber and Jewish literatire in general, it's very likely this story influenced him as well. And, once again, i am astonished at how a story can both condense and transmit across generations, the complex knowledge that human cultures create.