“Hillel would say, Do not judge your fellow until you have stood in his place.”
-Pirkei Avot 2:4
“Don’t judge a man until you have walked two moons in his moccasins.”
-Native American proverb
“Ouch! I’ll never get these on.” Prince Richard complained painfully as his father tried once again to push his right foot into the glass slipper. “Stop it, Father. The shoe is too small, and it’s made of glass. Do you want to cut me?”
“Stop complaining, my son.” King Stellen was running out of patience, which is not a good quality in a father or a King. “If you ever hope to find Ella, let alone understand her, you must step into her shoes.”
“Maybe I don’t want to understand her.” He yanked his foot back and examined the newly formed bruises. “Maybe I’d like to understand a woman with larger feet and who wears more sensible footwear. What sort of woman wears glass slippers, even to a formal event?”
“I don’t know, Richard. But if you want to find out, you’ll have to try again.”
The young Prince hesitated, and then grimaced as he again offered his foot to his father. “Be gentle, please.”
“Here, perhaps a little butter applied in the right places will help.”
King Stellen took some butter from the small dish he had earlier placed on the night stand next to him and rubbed it generously on his son’s right foot.
“That actually feels pretty good.” Richard closed his eyes and recalled the sensuous beauty Ella exuded when she first walked into the grand ballroom the night before. All eyes were on her, and every man, from the lowliest Duke, to Richard the Prince himself, desired a dance with the wondrous stranger (actually, the old King felt a similar desire…one not experienced for many years, but Queen Sophie used her ceremonial fan to smack the King a good one on the shoulder, derailing such thoughts).
It was while in this mood, this altered state of thought, that Richard felt a strange sensation at the ends of his legs, and opening his eyes, he saw something startling.
“How in the world did you do that?” While the Prince had been momentarily transported back to last night, to his dance with the young and captivating Ella, to the quiet conversation they shared on the balcony later that evening, King Stellen had managed to place both glass slippers on Richard’s feet.
“I’ll never be able to walk on them.” Richard saw through the glass how his feet had twisted and deformed to meld to the exact shape of the rigid, transparent footwear.
“You’re going to have to Richard, if you want to find this girl.”
“She’s not just a girl, Father. She’s everything.”
The Prince was as startled as Ella as the clock tower began to strike midnight. He had been lost in the blueness of her eyes, the sweet scent of her hair, the satin smoothness of her lips.
Ella, on the other hand, had a quite different cause for concern as the bell struck the second of twelve times. Without so much as a word, she turned and ran. She burst back into the ballroom before Richard could even react, and by the time he did, he had trouble getting through the couples still dancing.
“Wait! Ella, wait!” Richard cried out to his new love as he saw her in the distance entering her private carriage drawn by four magnificent grey horses, and then speed away into the distance and darkness.
By the time he got to the front gates of the castle and begin to descend the stairs to the road below, all that was left of her were two glass slippers, which she obviously shed to aid in her running (who could run in shoes made of glass anyway, especially with four-inch heels?).
“Our legends…” Richard was abruptly yanked back to the present when his father began to speak.
“Are you listening?”
“Yes, Father. What were you saying?”
“I was saying that our legends tell us that to understand a person completely, one must walk a mile in their shoes.”
“Surely, you don’t take that literally, do you?” Sometimes Richard thought the old man’s mind was beginning to go.
“This is how I met your mother, Richard.”
“But Mother has much larger feet, and she wears slippers of silk trimmed with Ermine fur, quite soft and comfortable, actually.”
“Honestly, son. Either you have fallen in love with this girl or you haven’t. If you have, this is the only way, it is the hereditary manner in which Princes and Kings of our realm have found mates for hundreds of years.”
“Maybe it’s time for a new tradition, Father.”
“Hush, my son. Try to stand.”
Richard (amazingly) no longer felt any pain, but he wasn’t sanguine about the idea of actually walking an inch, let alone an entire mile, in these shoes.
“Very well, I’ll try.”
Richard shifted his weight on the bed so he could lean forward. Tentatively, he placed one foot on the floor, then the other. Then he lifted up a bit and started to put weight on his right leg.
“Egad! I didn’t even stand. I almost fell over.”
“Try again,” the King said, an edge of menace in his voice.
Richard rolled his eyes, resulting in a look of stern disapproval from the King, and made another attempt.
“OK, I’m up, balancing, balancing…”
The old King displayed the reflexes of a much younger man as he stood up just in time to catch Richard.
“What kind of sadist invented heels? How do women balance on these pointy things?”
“I believe high heeled shoes for women were invented by Alex the Misogynist some two-hundred years ago after the ending of an unhappy love affair, but that’s not important right now.”
Richard held onto King Stellen as he tried to regain his footing. It was like learning how to walk all over again. The King was reminded how Richard was somewhat slow to begin walking as a child.
Like a marionette pulled by uncertain strings, Richard lurched about his bedroom, trying to get the hang of walking in these ridiculous slippers. He tripped, but Stellen was there to catch him, again.
After almost an hour, Richard was able to successfully balance and walk, though he moved with a gait somewhat resembling Boris Karloff’s performance as Frankenstein’s monster.
“There you have it, son. Now go out and find her.”
“You can’t be serious, Father, I look like an idiot in these things.” King Stellen refrained from issuing the obvious response, but not without difficulty.
“I can’t go out like this!” Richard turned in a clumsy fashion to face his father.
“I’ll become a laughing-stock. I can’t be seen wearing, let alone walking in these things. Can’t I ride in a carriage?”
“The custom specifically says ‘walking,’ Richard. Have no fear. A dozen armed soldiers of my personal guard will surround you on your journey. They will shield you from the sight of the common people after you leave the castle.”
“Oh, terrific. I can’t wait to hear the gossip coming from the soldier’s barracks in the days to come about how the Prince donned ladies shoes to go out for a stroll.”
“Be brave my son. Have the courage of the King you will be one day.” Stellen didn’t tell his son how the Queen was the one who really ran things, and the better part of a King’s courage is to keep out of the Queen’s way.
“Here, let me help you.” King Stellen guided Richard out of his bedroom and down the hall where the Captain of the guards was waiting. “Captain.” Captain Perez snapped to attention at the King’s command, then bit his tongue to stifle his giggling at the Prince and his accessories.
“Escort the Prince outside. Have a dozen of your finest men surround him and go in whatever direction he chooses. His safety, not to mention his modesty and reputation, are your responsibility.”
“Yessir! Right away, your Highness!”
Captain Perez liked his job. Good hours. Decent pay. Not a lot of work besides escorting this person or that throughout the villages and countryside whenever members of the royal court decided it was time to pay a bit of attention to the common folk. It wouldn’t do to give in to the temptation to ridicule the Prince as he so aptly deserved. No one on the guard respected the Prince, the spoiled brat sissy whiner that he was, but this was a new low, even for him. What next, dresses and make up?
The Captain took the Prince by his elbow to steady him and slowly walked him to the outer hall where the other guards were waiting. They surrounded the Prince as ordered, and then the entourage exited the front gates of the castle, descended the long flight of steps (Richard was dying to throw off his glass slippers as Ella had done the night before), and onto the main road in front of the royal residence.
According to legend, his father’s legend, Richard should begin to gain a sense of direction, a path upon which to walk his “mile” (literal or metaphorical) in Ella’s shoes.
Not surprisingly, he turned left, which was the direction her carriage had shot off in just before the last few strokes of the chimes at midnight.
“One step at a time, one step at a time.” Richard was encouraging himself. Perez and the rest of the guards had the good sense to keep their mouths shut and their eyes faced forward.
“Hello, there.” Richard jumped and stopped walking when the voice spoke. He looked around, but besides the guards, no one was present.
“Why, no one, my Prince. There’s no one here but your guards.” The Captain began to wonder if Prince Richard was playing some sort of elaborate prank. There were a few villagers about, but they were hardly close enough to be heard.
It was true that while the guards and soldiers of the Kingdom treated the common folk kindly, which is to say, they ignored the unwashed villagers, except at tax time, the people of the villages tended to shy away from uniformed men, especially if they walked the streets in numbers, so there was no one nearby who could have addressed the Prince.
“Oh, don’t worry. Only you can hear me, Prince.”
It was a woman’s voice, but it was tiny, almost as if an insect could speak.
“I heard that thought. I am not a bug, Prince. I’m a fairy, specifically a Fairy Godmother…Ella’s in fact.”
“Uh…OK.” Richard began to worry that his grip on reality was loosening, but then again, he was wearing a pair of glass slippers hoping for a miracle, so this wasn’t entirely unexpected.
“Who are you addressing, Prince?” Perez was looking around now. Had he missed someone approaching the group?
“No one, Captain. Mind your own business and ignore everything I say.” Captain Perez had been trying to ignore Richard for years. “Unless I address you directly, Captain.”
“Yes, young Prince.”
“Here’s the deal, Prince,” uttered the fairy. “The slippers are enchanted, otherwise you’d never have gotten your feet into them. I know, I enchanted them, along with everything Ella was wearing that night,” (the Fairy Godmother was especially proud of the enchanted lingerie she had conjured up for Ella, but unfortunately, the girl was too slow and shy to let her tryst with the Prince get that far before her midnight deadline.
“You’re walking in the right direction. Ella’s cottage isn’t very far. With each step, you’ll notice something different about yourself. Trust me. It’s supposed to happen this way.”
“Where are you?” Richard was turning his head, looking in every direction he could think of, trying to find his invisible companion.
“I’m right beside you, but I’m unseen. Can’t have these oafs accompanying you know about magic. Why, they’d run for the hills if they realized this stuff actually worked and people could be turned into mice and worms and such (keep that in mind if you even think about arguing with me).”
“Now just shut up and keep walking. Don’t answer me. You’ve embarrassed yourself enough in front of these armed clods.”
Richard opened his mouth to reply and then closed it with a snap.
One foot forward, then another, then another, and then…
The Prince began to feel fatigued, but not from his journey. It was as if he had been laboring at menial tasks all morning, and on too little sleep. He was hungry, even though he’d had an ample breakfast of boar sausage and dove’s eggs. What was wrong with him?
Richard felt as if he had been mistreated for most of his life, as if he knew what it was like to personally feel injustice and even despair. Although his parents both lived and were in fine health, he found he missed them terribly, as if he hadn’t seen them for years.
A tear ran down his cheek as he mourned them, even though they lived and often annoyed him.
In spite of all these feelings of suffering, there was something else within him. Prince Richard looked around him, as best he could given the suffocating closeness of the surrounding guards.
The sun was bright and shining. The morning air, cool and refreshing. The songs of the birds in the trees had never sounded sweeter. It was as if Richard had never seen the world before, and now having experienced it for the first time, found it wonderful and exciting.
Richard begin to sing a little melody, “Whistle while you work…” Unfortunately, he couldn’t carry a tune with both hands and a bucket and his whistling was horribly off-key. He didn’t care, even though the guards were showing obvious signs of suffering.
“We seem to have arrived at a residence, Prince Richard.” The Prince was startled out of his reflective state.
“So we have.” Richard recognized the place, though he didn’t know how. A doctor, his wife, and their little girl once lived here, but all that had changed.
“Captain, please knock on the door,” the Prince politely requested, rather than his usual snotty-sounding command.
Perez stepped forward and raised his arm to knock, but the door suddenly opened before he had a chance.
“Welcome, welcome.” A crone of a woman greeted the guard. She peered past Captain Perez and leered. “Is it the Prince himself who has come to visit?”
The previous night, Cate, Ella’s stepmother, had sent her two homely…uh, appearance-challenged daughters Drisella and Anastasia to the royal ball in the hopes they might attract the attention of men of wealth and importance. It was long past time for them to take husbands, and sadly, both their visual presentation and their lack of manners resulted in few if any male callers.
The girls had complained that some young, blond tart had stolen the hearts of all the men in the room, especially the Prince’s, but perhaps that wasn’t true. After all, here was the Prince at their door, and her two daughters (fortunately, that pesky Ella was sweeping up the cellar at the moment) were peeking shyly at their royal visitor from just behind her.
“Please, young Prince Richard, come in. Come in.” Cate moved aside to allow the guards to precede the Prince (for they had to make sure the premises were secure) and then for the Prince himself to enter.
Several guards including the Captain, stayed with Richard, while the rest fanned out, searching the house.
Cate noticed the Prince’s odd gait and looked down to see his unusual foot gear. “My, how fashions among royalty have changed. Is this the latest style, Prince Richard?”
“Have a care woman!” Perez raised his hand to threaten the woman for her apparent insult to the Prince (not that the Captain disagreed, but this was duty) and Richard took the guard by the wrist to stop him.
“That’s all right, Captain. I must admit that I’m wearing unanticipated slippers.” Perez had never heard Richard sound so mature and reasonable.
The two step sisters were still hiding behind their mother and giggling like silly twits when one of the guards came up from the cellar with Ella in tow. “The house is secure, Captain. This is the only other person we found.”
“Ella! My darling!” Richard started to rush forward forgetting how awkward it was to walk in size four glass heels and he stumbled forward, crashing into Ella and the guard.
The three of them tumbled to the floor. “Ella! How dare you make a fool of yourself in front of the Prince!” Cate seized this opportunity to make Ella look bad in the hopes that the royal suitor would turn his attention to one or both of her daughters.
“No, no,” the Prince kindly replied, his voice muffled by the guard laying over his face. Captain Perez gripped his fallen subordinate by one arm and yanked him to his feet. “Buffoon!”
Everyone looked back at Ella and the Prince only to find them embracing.
“Why did you leave last night, Ella? We were just starting to get to know each other.”
The guards, Cate, and the ugly step sisters alike were all gaping, mouths open, at the unlikely scene.
“It’s that silly magic. My Fairy Godmother only works part-time, so she and her spells went off duty at midnight.”
“Hey! I’m semi-retired,” yelled a tiny and indignant voice.
“It’s, OK. I understand.” Richard tried to get up so he could help Ella to her feet, but he lost his balance and fell again. Ella stood and extended her hand. “It’s such a bother to walk in those things. Here, let me.”
Richard allowed Ella to help him to his feet. Captain Perez and his guards were still too much in shock to do that duty.
Ella assisted Richard to the nearest chair and then kneeled in front of him to remove his inconvenient footwear.
“Now it’s my turn to help you.” Richard stood, gently guided Ella into the chair he had just vacated, then in front of those present, removed her worn work shoes from her feet, and replaced them with the glass slippers. A perfect fit.
In a flash, Ella was once again wearing the enchanted gown from the night before.
“I’ve walked in those shoes a mile I believe.”
“A short bit more I believe, my Prince.” Captain Perez had regained his voice and his composure. Cate and her daughters started to loudly object only to be silenced by the drawn swords of a dozen guards.
“I know what you’ve suffered, the torturous life you’ve led, and yet you never lost your purity and hope. I love you. Please marry me. Be my Princess.”
Only the threat of impending death by impaling squelched objections of insult and outrage from Cate and her two daughters.
A small voice whispered in Ella’s ear. “What are you waiting for? Say ‘yes,’ you knucklehead.”
“But it’s so sudden,” Ella whispered back to her still invisible Fairy Godmother. “What if I want to get to know him first?”
“What’s the problem, my darling?” The Prince was authentically puzzled, especially since this time, he couldn’t hear the Godmother.
Ella received a small but powerful whap on the back of her head for her troubles. “If you’d moved faster last night, you wouldn’t be asking such stupid questions right now.”
Inspiration, and a bit of magic from the glass slippers, intervened.
Ella stood and Prince Richard rose from the floor. She put her arms around his neck and looked up into his shimmering brown eyes. “I’ll tell you what, Richard. Let’s take a walk. I’m sure a journey of a short mile in the shoes you’ve just recently vacated will help facilitate my answer.”
The two stood side-by-side. Richard offered his arm and Ella took it. “As you wish, my Princess.”
The guards pushed Cate and the two irrelevant stepdaughters aside to allow Ella and the Prince to exit Ella’s former abode. The guards escorted the two lovers slowly back to the castle, that is, after Captain Perez issued a stern warning that it would be in Cate’s and her daughters’ best interest to find another village to live in, preferably leaving by sundown and not stopping until they were at least twenty leagues distant.
“Finally something worked out right.” The Fairy Godmother remained unseen and unheard, but she was going to have the last word anyway. “Looks like those enchanted bits of lingerie aren’t going to go to waste after all. So much for purity, my dear.”
With an improper, if not lecherous laugh, the Fairy Godmother’s voice faded into nothingness.
Rabbi Kalman Packouz, in his current Shabbat Shalom Weekly article, writes a great deal on the nature of how we judge other people and the consequences of doing such. If you’ve spent any time at all reading and listening to social and news media lately, you know there’s plenty of judgment going around in the world of politics and social commentary. It seems as if we are all clustered into one type of crowd or another, and all of these little collections of people groups definitely do not understand each other and definitely do judge each other.
I’m hardly immune to making judgments myself, but every once in a while, I think it’s important to stop defending (or being defensive about) what we think is so critical in our lives and actually consider what it would be like to “walk two moons in” another person’s “moccasins.”
I don’t happen to think it’s all that easy.
Let’s take the example of white social justice advocates who support the Black Lives Matter movement. No matter how much they want to empathize with BLM, let’s face it, the white social justice people are white. They’ve always been white. They’ll always be white. They’ll never, ever have a lived experience as a black person.
So how exactly could they walk a mile in a black person’s shoes, so to speak?
In 1970, a film came out called The Watermelon Man (I’ve never seen the film, but I like the idea). It’s the story of a white bigot who wakes up one morning as a black man. I’m sure you can imagine his shock.
Predictably, he gets a taste of his own medicine in a big way. According to the story, he never reverts to being his old, white self again, but the story has a happy ending anyway.
I actually did read John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me novel. In the 1950s Griffin, who was a white journalist, significantly changed his appearance so he could pass as a black man, and as such, learned first hand what the lived experience of a black man in the deep south was like.
That’s probably as close as you’ll get to a white person walking in a black man’s shoes.
No, it’s not that we shouldn’t try to understand another person’s point of view. It’s just that doing so isn’t very easy. I think a lot of social justice people think it is easy and their (sometimes) superficial take on the Black Lives Matter movement fails to truly grasp it’s meaning and implications. Hence they sometimes knee-jerk their reactions and responses without taking the time to really think them through.
Unlike Prince Richard, it will take a lot more than cramming our big feet into tiny glass slippers to change us so significantly that we can actually feel what Ella’s life is like and take on her kindness and compassion, her optimistic and hopeful view of the world.
In the end, most of us judge others most of the time based on our own biases and worldview and not by going the extra mile, so to speak, and attempting to experience what the other is experiencing.
That’s human nature. Human nature is a mother bear to overcome. Believe me, I try all the time.