In My Own Write: Survival of the fittest

Imagine if everyone you met out walking shoved you rudely out of the way.

July 2, 2013 22:13

Balloons 370. (photo credit: REUTERS)

That which is hateful to you, do not do unto your fellow
– the sage Hillel, quoted in Talmud Shabbat 31a

Hillel’s famous response to the non-Jew who requested that the sage teach him the entire Torah while standing on one foot sounds uncomplicated – even obvious, when you think about it – but its simplicity is deceptive, as the fellow could have intuited from the admonition which followed: “That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary; go and learn.”

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It may, in fact, take a lifetime to absorb Hillel’s teaching, and constant effort and vigilance to live by it – such is our very human nature, with its powerful impulse to do and get what we want and (feel we) need at any given time, others and their needs be damned.

Any day of the week offers an array of examples in which ordinary people like you and me do to others what, one surmises, would be hateful to them: pushing ahead in line; cutting others off in traffic; stealing parking spaces; playing loud music or having the television on at high volume very early in the morning or very late at night when neighbors are trying to sleep; belittling others by interrupting them or shouting them down, and bullying others to get their own way.

SOMETIMES WHEN I’m out and about – riding on a bus, for instance – I look around at the other passengers sitting there and reflect on how each individual is to him- or herself the epicenter of the universe, with his or her desires and concerns looming largest. I fancy I can see all those clamoring egos jostling each other like so many inflated balloons vying for space, and wonder at how we humans manage to get along together in a more or less civilized way, most of the time.

That happens because the majority of us are aware of the need to show at least a degree of consideration for others. It’s the only way society can function in any tolerable manner.

Imagine if every person you met out walking shoved you rudely out of the way; if no vehicle ever stopped to allow you to cross the road; if getting attended to, whether in a bank, post office, government office or health clinic, was solely a matter of who had the sharpest elbows, greatest bulk and most persistent manner.

(Come to think of it, it was a bit like that in Israel when I arrived here in the early 1970s. Public norms seemed much more like a free-for-all where “survival of the fittest” ruled; and, as in the old joke, you felt you had to be in robust health to visit your doctor’s office because if you were ill, you just couldn’t take the strain. Today’s reality in government offices and other official venues has – thanks to the blessed “take a number” system – become a relative paradise of fairness and calm.)

‘JUST IMAGINE,” a Jerusalem friend marveled at a recent item in the newspaper, “that people should actually need a leaflet advising them to allow passengers on the light rail to get off before they themselves board. You’d think they’d apply a bit of common sense and wouldn’t require a piece of paper to tell them the obvious,” Maybe, I countered, but the notion of kindness and consideration for other people – even in such a trivial affair as letting them first off the train or bus, or elevator – is something that has to be inculcated, preferably from an early age.

Those adults one occasionally comes across who are plainly in need of a course in common courtesy clearly weren’t exposed to it either at home or in school, which is a great pity.

If I were education minister, I would make sure that every educational institution, from kindergarten and preschool up, gave a “kindness course” at every level.

As students became more sophisticated, the content would widen to embrace ethics and other, related fields. The material would never run out, and we would surely see the results in successive generations – for whom letting passengers first off a train or bus would be second nature.

THERE ARE many wonderful stories about the exemplary empathy, kindness and consideration that Reb Aryeh Levin (1885-1969), known as the “Tzaddik of Jerusalem,” had for others.

One that particularly appeals to me is about the time Reb Aryeh’s wife felt pain in her foot and they went to the doctor together. When he asked, “What can I do for you?” the rabbi answered, in all sincerity, “Doctor, my wife’s foot is hurting us.”

It is told about Reb Aryeh that he would stay up until 2 a.m. every night listening to disputes between married couples and helping to restore domestic peace and harmony. When asked why he didn’t arrange for them to come to his house earlier in the evening, he replied that couples with marital problems worried about their reputations and preferred to come to him discreetly, in the late hours of the night.

TALKING ABOUT peace and harmony, there are situations in which, much as you would like, it is well-nigh impossible to act considerately toward others.

One of them is when you renovate a home. You may feel genuinely sorry about shattering your neighbors’ peace and quiet, but in practice there isn’t much you can do about it.

And when life cracks a joke at your expense, the only thing you can do is laugh.

As my husband and I ruefully did at the beginning of this week, when we were awakened at 7:30 a.m. by the unmistakable cacophony of heavy construction equipment, demolishing – which is what it sounded like – the apartment immediately beneath our current one. The noise, like some giant dentist’s drill, carried on well into the afternoon, with only intermittent lapses.

Belatedly we recalled the polite notice pasted to the building’s door thoughtfully put up by the people who just recently bought the apartment in question: “As your new neighbors, we apologize for the noise and disruption caused by our home being renovated. The work should take about two months.”

Two months! We had to shrug our shoulders philosophically – because this cacophonous concert is exactly what we have been subjecting our future neighbors to. For the past two months, a renovation crew has bored, banged and battered its way through our new home-to-be, to which we will move only in several weeks’ time.

How thankful we felt that we weren’t compelled to live there while all the work was going on, happy that we could wait it out in the peace and quiet of our present, soon-to-be-vacated apartment.

Until four days ago.

I can now declare, without fear of contradiction, that the best alarm clock in the world is a jackhammer or pneumatic drill operated just under your bed.

EVEN BEFORE this unwelcome change of fortune, we had been planning to give the neighbors in our new location a small gift to thank them for their patience and fortitude in the face of our lengthy home renovation.

We still aim to do that – but I now believe we would have done better to present each of them in advance with a gift-wrapped box of luxury earplugs – the kind that are specifically designed for loud concerts, motorcycling and house demolitions.

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