Image: Two fire engines at the fire at Alco Iron & Metal Co. in San Leandro, CA. (Photo by Alameda Co Fire Dept, via SFGate.com) Notice the thick smoke.

Love the stranger, for you yourselves were strangers in Egypt. – Deuteronomy 10:19

I participate in a local social media site called NextDoor.com. At its best, NextDoor is a way to share information and to make connections nearby, a rare and wonderful thing in this age of the World Wide Web. Like all social media, it has limitations, but it has great potential for good.

This past week I heard on the radio that there was a fire at a local salvage facility, Alco Iron & Metals. I was familiar with the business; I’d gone there a few times with my son, an artist who works in metals. I remembered it as a barely controlled chaos of all kinds of scrap metal and materials. A fire there had terrible potential.

I looked down the hill, and sure enough, a huge plume of smoke rose from the site. The wind was blowing south, not towards me. The radio warned local residents to shelter indoors and to keep pets inside, because the smoke was bad for people.

No kidding, I thought, thinking of the people downwind of the fire, choking on the burnt effluvia of the stuff I’d seen stacked at Alco. Most of it was metal, but metal is often painted or coated, or connected to plastic. Had I been downwind of that fire, I’d have flung my dogs in the car and gone seeking shelter away from the smoke.

A little later I checked in to the NextDoor site and saw that one of my neighbors had put out the welcome mat for anyone in the line of the smoke to come to her house to breathe clean air. I was dazzled by her hospitality – all she asked was for people to contact her privately and she’d send them her address!

I thought, “I should do that, too.” And then I hesitated. Thoughts flooded in: I did not know who might respond. I thought about all the times I have been warned against letting strangers in my home. I thought about the many times in Torah I am commanded to love the stranger.

I decided not to place a general invitation to my house. Instead, I thanked the other woman for her generosity.

I’m not happy with my response. This is not the person I strive to be.

I need to think through how I want to deal with people I don’t yet know in a time of trouble. I want to talk with the neighbor who opened her door. I want to think of more and better options for myself the next time something like this happens.

I know from my training that there are usually more than two possible responses to any situation. In this case, all I could think of was “open invitation” and “no open invitation.” I’m going to keep looking until I create a better menu for myself, so that when people are hurting nearby, I can respond more compassionately.

Have you ever faced a situation in which your desire to do the right thing and your fears were in conflict? How did you choose? How did you feel about your choice? In the aftermath, did you do any planning about future events?

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