Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Free Hugs, and the Road to Redemption

It was probably meant to fill the editorial quota of quirky human-interest stories.

On May 10th, the New York Times had an article about two young men, Jayson Littman and Sipai Klein, who spend their Sunday afternoons in Washington Square Park in Manhattan giving out free hugs.

As you can imagine, giving out free hugs to New Yorkers can be difficult. They get rejected - a lot. The article describes some of their struggles:

“"How about a free hug?" he hollered at a man, woman and small boy dressed all in black. "How about not?" the boy shot back.

"I'm trying to cut down," said a banker from Kenya.

"Nothing's free," said another man, as he brushed past with his golden retriever.”

But these two quixotic huggers soldier on, hoping to start a worldwide hugging movement.

At this point you’re supposed to laugh, and dismiss this story as the comic antics of two guys with too much time on their hands. But I couldn’t dismiss this story. I felt these two guys might be on to something, and that there is a deeper truth to hugging that we often overlook. So I took out my Tanach (Hebrew Bible) to investigate the phenomena of hugging.

In fact, only one character in the Tanach ever hugs: Jacob. And he actually ends up being a bit of a hugger, hugging on three different occasions.

The first time Jacob hugs is when he runs away from his brother Esau to his mother’s ancestral home. There he meets his uncle Laban, who greets him with open arms.

The second time Jacob hugs is when he returns home, and his brother Esau, who has long promised to kill him, is coming with 400 men to “greet” him. After some skillful diplomacy on Jacob’s part, a disaster is averted, and the brothers reunite with a hug.

The third time Jacob hugs is at the end of his life. His two grandchildren that were born in Egypt, Ephraim and Manasseh, are presented to him for blessings. Before he blesses them, he gives them a hug.

Each of Jacob’s hugs has a different purpose.

The first hug is a hug of reunion: Jacob hasn’t seen his uncle Laban in a very long time.

The second hug is a hug of reconciliation: Jacob and Esau have had bad blood for some time, and are once again true brothers.

The third hug is a hug of bonding: a foreign born grandfather, Jacob, tries to cross generational and culture gaps, and explain to his Egyptian born grandchildren what his family’s legacy is really about.

In each of these hugs, a barrier to relationships is shattered. Obstacles of distance, age and hatred are overcome, and love now finds a way. Jacob transcends distance to reunite with Laban, he transcends hatred to reconcile with Esau, and transcends cultures to bond with his grandchildren. The hug transcends all obstacles in its path.

Hugs best express this sentiment, because in it’s own primal way, a hug expresses friendship without reservations. Hugs are not for those with stiff upper lips or complicated hierarchies; rather, they are for any two people who want to bond because they share God’s divine image. It is a simple gesture of openess and acceptance.

So, the Tanach’s message is this: hugs redeem lost relationships. And that fits very well with Jacob’s general image as the patriarch of exile, the refugee who leads the Jews into their first exile in Egypt. As the patriarch of exile, Jacob has to look for the little pieces of a future redemption. And hugs are one of those little pieces.

Now, I’m not going on a hugging campaign. But Jacob teaches us that the road to redemption is found wherever two people manage to bridge social gaps and find a way to express friendship. So, say hello to someone new in the synagogue; smile at a stranger; and if you have to…….. give someone a hug.

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