Hugs R Us

...he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept.
— Genesis 33:4

Did you see the article in last week's Wall Street Journal on hugging? I had no idea that hugging had become such big business. For about a dollar a minute, you can be professionally hugged, cuddled, tickled or spooned. Some cuddlers make up to $80 an hour ,and if you have the Cuddlr App, you can find your own hugger. Of course, there are some boundaries lest anyone get the wrong idea. Many professional cuddlers have rules about showering and brushing teeth before a visit, but if you smell sweet and control yourself, it seems that if you're 'out of touch,' you're in luck.

Thousands of customers across the country are booking appointments with professional cuddlers in at least 16 states.
— Wall Street Journal, Jan 8, 2015

The article and subsequent online discussion around it raises the important issue of the human need for touch and affection. Medical and consumer research tells us you are likely to have a better experience in a doctor's office, store or restaurant if you have even been lightly patted or touched. Most people unconsciously register this as an act of concern and compassion. You're more likely to get better tips, be less likely to be called in a medical malpractice case and more likely to get a compliment for your service.

There are a few famous biblical hugs worth mentioning at this juncture. Disclaimer: none of them involved any financial transaction.

Hug Number One

Jacob and Esau reunite after a long separation and with a lot of anxiety expended preparing for the meeting. It not only went more smoothly than expected, it surfaced deep emotions for both sides, as we read in Genesis 33:4 - "Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept." There are negative rabbinic readings of this reunion, but the text plainly read is unmistakable. This hug was a real emotional embrace.

Hug Number Two

Here we look at another brotherly reunion in Genesis, one previously defined by rivalry and danger. Joseph reunites with his brothers who suspect him of revenge. They stand in quiet disbelief while Joseph reveals himself and says that he has come to terms with their difficult relationship and forgiven them. He sees his younger brother. He has ached for Benjamin, and we as readers cannot wait to see them unite with each other, as Genesis 45:14-15 record: "Then he [Joseph] threw his arms around his brother Benjamin and wept, and Benjamin embraced him, weeping. And he kissed all his brothers and wept over them. Afterward his brothers talked with him."

Hug Number Three

This famous female, platonic hug was preferred to a kiss. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law when parting, but Ruth held on with affection and admiration to the woman who taught her so much. As Naomi mentions how she feels punished by God and isolated - a woman who lost everything - the women weep: "At this they wept again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law good-by, but Ruth clung to her. 'Look,' said Naomi, 'your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.' But Ruth replied, 'Don't urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.' When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her" Ruth 1:14-18 takes us to a moment of loss and hope communicated powerfully by the simple act of an embrace.

As we read about these non-professional cuddlers, we see three reasons that you could never pay for such a physical transaction: 1) each embrace was not about mere physical touch but about the acceptance of the other - in each case a non-obvious recipient of the embrace. The hug was the Bible's way of telling us that a significant fracture was on its way to healing. 2) Each embrace was followed by conversation. The hug came first but was immediately followed or pre-empted by talk, explanation or revelation. 3) Each hug signified the beginning of a new stage of relationship where the past was not forgotten but was put to the side to give space for a new relationship to emerge.

You can pay for a touch. But you cannot put a price on intimacy, and intimacy is not something you can buy. You have to earn it.

Your hugs may be worth up to $80 an hour. So find those worth hugging in your life who you'd never charge and show them through touch and talk how much you value them in your life. Hold that hug just a little bit longer than usual because... well, because you can.

Shabbat Shalom

A Pair of Shoes

“We will buy the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of shoes.”

Amos 8:6



W. H. Auden once wrote, “Almost all of our relationships begin and most of them continue as forms of mutual exploitation, a mental or physical barter, to be terminated when one or both parties run out of goods.” I find this hard to accept. I really hope our poet had good friends. Not everyone in the world is out to exploit others. The Bible understood that some people were naturally susceptible to exploitation and warned us lest we begin to think too much like Auden and not enough like Amos.

Our verse above is often twinned with another from Amos: “Because they have sold for silver those whose cause was just, and the needy for a pair of shoes” (2:6) One contemporary Israeli commentary observes that this is the price of injustice. Those in positions of power and authority will have become so corrupt and extortionist that in order to live under their leadership, the poor will sell themselves for basic necessities.

Another interpreter believes that shoes are an inexpensive, insignificant item and that the choice of this metaphor illustrates the depth of a corrupt society. Another posits the exact opposite.  Most of the poor go barefoot because shoes are expensive; corrupt leaders will sell out the poor to keep themselves in shoes. Yet other commentaries understand this verse more literally. Shoes were often used in business or other deals as a sign of transaction – this is true in the rejection of Levirate marriage as described in the book of Ruth. Rashi sees shoes as representative of land purchase, perhaps because land was often measured by footfalls.

Rashi translates this term not as shoe but as a reference to a “locked door” since the two words have a common Hebrew root. The rich would buy up land from the poor, locking away real estate for themselves and taking away the little security that a needy person might have.

There is a very old midrash on this expression that states that when his brothers sold Joseph, they used the money to purchase shoes for themselves. In essence, they were benefitting personally from the sale of another human being. While this purchase never makes an actual appearance in the Bible, Genesis does tell us that after Joseph’s brothers threw him in a pit, they sat down to eat lunch. This small detail tells us everything we need to know about their callousness at that moment. Subsequently, the expression “to sell someone for a pair of shoes” is used to capture particularly harsh and cutting behavior that lacks compassion and humanity.

There is a Hasidic story that I have always loved and think of sometimes in the face of rejection. A young yeshiva student who was dirt poor went door-to-door in his village to ask for a few dollars to buy himself a pair of shoes. The young man was considered a prodigy but still his feet were bare. He approached the door of the village’s most wealthy family only to have the door slammed in his face. He was utterly humiliated. Years passed and the young scholar achieved great fame and was scheduled to speak in the village of his old yeshiva. The wealthy man who ignored his plea years earlier approached him and offered to cover the cost of publishing the scholar’s first book. In earnest, the prodigy looked him straight in the eye and rejected his offer with these words: “No thank you. But there was a time when you could have had me for a pair of shoes…”

            Amos understood that compassion must be a greater driver in creating a just society than self-interest. The fact that you can buy someone for a pair of shoes does not mean that you should. Those who have that kind of power over others – be it financial or emotional - must temper it with grace. Kindness is the measure of a good society.


Shabbat Shalom