Friday, August 07, 2009

Caring Enough to be Careful

One of my fondest memories is the time I was traveling with a vanload of public school kids to some JEP or NCSY shabbaton, and we got a flat tire. Pulling over the side of the road, in a light rain, with traffic around us and limited time until sundown, I got that ominous feeling I sometimes get on Erev Shabbos when there’s a sudden wrench thrown into my erstwhile perfect plan. Also, I was a yeshiva bachur. What did I know about fixing a flat?

Fortunately, within a few minutes another car pulled up behind us and some other bachurim—who apparently went to a yeshiva that appreciated the virtues of flat-fixing—popped out. With a quick introduction they got to work. No sooner had they started than another car pulled over. More bachurim. More flat fixers. At this point I’m thinking that I attended the only yeshiva in America where basic auto maintenance was not an elective.

By the time the job was done, two more cars had stopped to see if we needed help. Both were helmed by what my father affectionately calls “frummies.” We were back on the road in twenty minutes, and made it to the shabbaton with time to shower. But what delighted me more than being on time for Shabbos was the reaction of one of the kids. Noticing that everyone who had stopped to pitch in wore a yarmulke, he asked, “Are all Orthodox Jews this nice?”

In an effort to ensure that the answer to that question is always yes, I offer the following ideas.

Every day starts with the morning. Most people are, like me, not morning people. This means they are a bit crankier, a bit more sensitive, a bit groggier in the morning. How refreshing it is, therefore, to be greeted by someone, a stranger, with a smile and a cheerful “Good morning.”

This simple, straightforward salutation invariably pays outsized returns.

In the bank where I work, I have developed a reputation for greeting all my colleagues at the beginning of the day with a cheerful “Happy Monday,” “Happy Tuesday,” and so on (Everybody loves “Happy Friday”; “Happy Monday” is significantly less popular). One morning, I walked into work distracted, and moved through the bank floor quickly to my desk to get started on what I knew was going to be a hectic day. At about mid-afternoon, I was feeling a lot less tense and made it over to the service desk. One of the associates gave me the cold shoulder, which I quickly picked up on. “Everything okay?” I asked.

“You forgot to wish me a Happy Wednesday,” she said.

Indeed I had forgot. But who would have thought that it mattered? Who would have thought that she’d be hurt by my innocent slip? It did. She was.

Benjamin Brafman, the famed attorney who spoke at a recent Agudath Israel asifa, made a comment that stuck with me for its simplicity and truthfulness: “If you are careful, it’s very easy to do a kiddush Hashem; if you’re not careful, it’s very easy to do a chillul Hashem.”

Recently, a major news magazine interviewed grocery store cashiers about the behavior of their customers. Most were appalled by the lack of manners. One of the biggest offenses was talking on the cell phone while checking out. Go to your local store and I'm sure you'll see plenty of your “nicest” neighbors doing this. They don’t mean anything by it, simply multitasking through a very busy schedule, but the message to the cashier is plain: “You aren't a real person to me.” Obviously most people don't intend it that way, but that's how it's perceived by the people who are on the other side of the counter.

Smiling, waving, nodding, greeting—these are all small, simple ways we can improve our lot, both personally and nationally.

On a stronger note, I am often asked by people starting out in my profession (financial planning and investment advice) what they should do to build a successful practice. I tell each of them, Jew and gentile alike, that if you strive to be the smartest person on Wall Street, you have lots of competition; if you try to be the luckiest person on Wall Street, that probably won’t happen either; but if you aim to be the most honest, ethical person on Wall Street, you have a pretty good shot at landing near the top.

The Talmud teaches that at the end of our lives we are asked four questions. One of those is, Did you deal faithfully in business? I would suggest that the emunah, the faith, that is under discussion is not merely the faith expressed between two business parties, but also the faith one must have in God that He will provide one’s daily bread. If we deal in business with the faith that God will give us what’s coming to us, then we are less likely to be tempted to cut corners in order to make ends meet.

The Rambam, in Mishneh Torah (Yesodei haTorah, chapter 5)¸ discusses the mitzvos of kiddush Hashem and chillul Hashem. His initial discussion revolves around the particular circumstances—idolatry, murder, and illicit sexual relations— requiring one to sacrifice his life, whereby doing so would create a kiddush Hashem, and not doing so would create a chillul Hashem.

But in the final halachah, the Rambam discusses more pedestrian concerns. He writes: “There are other matters which are incorporated into chillul Hashem. These are things that if done by someone who is great in Torah and prominent in piety, things that society will slander him because of them, even if they are not actual sins, he has desecrated the Name.” The Rambam goes on to describe activities that are on the opposite side of the sin spectrum, indiscretions much less severe than idolatry, murder, and illicit sexual relations. Things like paying bills late, hanging out with the riff-raff, and not speaking courteously.

I would argue that in our time, anyone who presents himself to the world as an Orthodox Jew falls into this category of “great in Torah” and “well-known in piety.” To the gentile world, to the non-Orthodox Jewish world, and even within the Orthodox world itself, we are the exemplars of Judaism. Whether we truly are “great in Torah” is irrelevant. Our behavior is seen as reflective of the Torah’s standard.

If we do not see ourselves this way, if we believe that we are not so different from the secular world, if we think that despite the yarmulkas on our heads we still “fit in” with everyone else, then we will—wrongly—fail to live up to this higher benchmark.

But if, on the other hand, we truly believe ourselves to be God’s chose nation, if we see ourselves as the touchstone of the Jewish people and if, above all, we are careful at all times, then we ought to succeed in our Divine mission of being a light not only unto the other nations but unto our own—our families, our communities, and our people.


Blogger Lvnsm27 said...

Excellent message, we need to be careful because we don't know who's paying attention. Plus, it's the right thing to do.

I remember going to a lecture and the speaker said the same thing about that when talking to a cashier, we should give them our full attention.

Sun Aug 09, 02:22:00 AM  
Blogger Mata Hari said...

Nicely written.

Sun Aug 09, 06:10:00 PM  
Blogger Staying Afloat said...

I love this. Such a simple, important point.

Did the opening story happen in Baltimore? Because I heard a similar one there. If it didn't, even better.

Mon Aug 10, 05:43:00 PM  
Blogger CJ Srullowitz said...

Hmmm...I'm thinking it was Long Island.

Tue Aug 11, 12:48:00 AM  
Blogger Jameel @ The Muqata said...

I remember a story from the 80s about a kippa wearing guy with a flat tire on the FDR drive in Manhattan. Within minutes, a car stopped, and a fellow Jew got out to help him change his flat.

After he finished, the stranded motorist sincerely thanked the person who helped him, and proceeded to take of his kippa and put it his glove compartment.

"I'm not even Jewish," he said, "but I know that wearing this, its better than any other roadside service that exists, and a Jew would pull over to help me".

Wed Aug 12, 04:09:00 AM  
Blogger The Leader, Garnel Ironheart said...

With all the trouble we've been causing ourselves, little acts of kiddush Hashem are that much more important now.

Thu Aug 13, 08:52:00 AM  
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