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Just doing the right thing by Michael J. Salamon The Awareness Center's Daily Newsletter - November 13, 2009
Early one Shabbos not that many years ago, a car accident took place just outside a shul. The 300-family congregation had just started services when they heard the loud boom of a car and truck colliding. Several shul members ran outside to see if they could help. The rabbi of the congregation waited a few minutes and he too walked out for a moment to see if he could be of assistance. Fortunately, no one was seriously injured. The truck could be driven and after the police took their report, the truck driver drove off. The car on the other hand, was destroyed. The rabbi asked the man who had been driving it if he needed any help and invited him inside the shul. The driver accepted, seeking a warm, comfortable place to calm down following the accident and wait for whatever help would be coming. Once inside the rabbi asked the man if he was Jewish. He was. The rabbi then asked if he would like to say Birkat Hagomel, the Blessing of Thanks for surviving a dangerous situation. The driver agreed and did so. What was surprising to people who were not members of the shul was not that the rabbi would welcome someone into the congregation — the rabbi was known for his warmth, friendship and genuine caring for others — but that he would do so on a Shabbat. Several weeks after the incident a member of the community, somewhat perplexed by what had transpired, asked the rabbi about his decision, to which he responded simply, “It is the right thing to do.”
The punch line for the story is not that the driver of the car, as a sign of gratitude, made a large donation, nor that he himself became religious, moved and joined the shul, or that he decided to send his children to a yeshiva. As far as I know, none of those things happened. The moral of the story is the austere fact that the rabbi did the right thing. He did not shun the man, ignore him or demand a specific behavior of him. He provided him some cordiality and the man felt calmer: a small but important attempt to make the world a nicer place.
I wonder lately where this “pay it forward” approach to life has gone. Some believe that we are all narcissists and as narcissists we believe in our own selfish infallibility. According to Doctors Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell, one of the common pitfalls of current society is that we have allowed ourselves to become so insistent that our way is the only correct one that we license ourselves to impose our demands on others. As they point out in their text “The Narcissism Epidemic,” we live in an “Age of entitlement.” This sense of privilege is so pervasive, not limited at all to individuals or certain ethnic or religious groups, that some truly believe they have the right to impose their beliefs, even private religious beliefs, on other people. Not everyone acts this way — most people do not — but those who do, attempt to impose their unique views on others by placing a tremendous burden on them. Whether it be demanding from others how one should dress through the use of “chastity squads,” to sanctioning or even rioting against those who report child abuse to the proper authorities, the question of whether a parking lot should be opened on Shabbat, even to threatening boycotts if a Zionist rabbi is elected in Jerusalem — these have no longer become topics for discussion but of intimidation. I personally would like to see less, or even no, traffic on Shabbat in Jerusalem, but I find it distasteful to employ rioting as a means to accomplish it. I do not mind, and even encourage, if people choose to dress modestly but as Rabbi Yehuda Henkin shows in his book “Understanding Tzniut,” rules for modesty are subject to differing interpretations in various communities. Randomly imposing dress codes is simply rude and destructive. The most competent rabbi should be selected for a position, not as a result of blackmail, and abuse must be dealt with properly.
It is not an easy task to teach someone with a hyper-inflated sense of superiority how to value others or even concede to another’s opinion. Psychotherapeutic treatments for narcissism acknowledge an individual’s egotistic sense of self-importance, while limiting any acknowledgement of their own grandiosity. This approach is thought to help the person to begin to see the world from a perspective beyond their own. Socially, however, this is significantly more difficult, because acknowledgement on any level becomes viewed as public acceptance. The more reinforcement given publicly, the more justified the movement begins to feel. Herein lays both the problem as well as the solution.
The recent visit by the Toldos Avrohom Yitzchok and Toldos Aharon rebbeim forces us to confront this issue very directly. We are, in a very real sense, required to help our brethren and co-religionists, but to what degree and for what intent? What is the right thing to do when it comes to situations in which we have major disagreements?
There are two aspects to this issue that must be acknowledged. The first is that at least some positions taken by people we disagree with are reasonable and perhaps even accurate. For example, it would be better if Shabbat were observed more properly. The other side, though, is that we cannot allow ourselves to be intimidated. The real problem is where and how to draw the line between a small-minded worldview determined to impose a rigid singular position, on the one hand — while simultaneously but absolutely demanding tolerance and understanding for all on the other.
From a psychological perspective the best way to deal with this issue is to marginalize only the self-important stone throwers and not generalize their ideology of aggressiveness to all who may look like them. Violence tends to act as a negative reinforcer and we do not want to encourage violence. If a child is repeatedly hit by a parent we find that the child’s behavior only worsens. The child has learned that this is an effective way to get a reaction, albeit a negative one. Ignoring also does not work. What does work is ignoring minor issues while, at the same time, broadly opening channels for communication that are predicated on understanding and developing respect toward one another. Ben Zoma said, “Who is wise? Someone who learns from every person.” With this as our guide we will find it easier to simply find the right thing to do.