Subway sleeper, Rabbi returns cash: when people do the right thing

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You may have caught a couple of stories that have been spreading virally over blogs and Face book the last couple of weeks. Both share one theme in common – in simple and unassuming ways, ordinary people acting morally or compassionately. In the first story, a fellow traveler on a subway line caught a picture of an African-American man taking a nap on the shoulder of a white man wearing a kippah. I mention the specifics of ethnicity and religious identity here because I believe they are relevant to the impact of the story and the way it went viral. More on that in a moment.  In the second story, a rabbi in New Haven bought a second hand desk and, upon taking it apart to fit it through a door at home, discovered $98,000 hidden inside it. He called the previous owner and returned to her what happened to be an inheritance that she had hidden there years ago.

Why have these two stories caught the imagination of so many? They may have particularly moved Jewish readers, pleased (or perhaps even relieved) to see a story featuring a fellow tribe member in such a positive light, but clearly these stories have spread far beyond our own community. Are we surprised to see such acts of kindness, compassion and honesty in a world where we have come to expect only self-interest and getting ahead? That might be the cynic’s response, but I think there’s more to it than that.

First, let me back to the detail of ethnic and religious identity in the first picture. While I don’t believe for a moment that this had anything to do with the motivations of the individuals themselves, from a purely pragmatic perspective, I do think it had something to do with why the picture went viral. Think for a moment; if it had been two white or two black people side by side, with no distinguishing garb to demonstrate the difference in some aspect of their identity, would this have caught the photographer’s eye? There might have been an assumption that these were two friends, boyfriends or girlfriends. So, while it might detract a little from the overall ‘feel good’ of this story, I think it is hard to deny that part of the impact of the image is the underlying assumption that these two individuals were not previously connected in any way. There’s a whole other narrative we could write about that but, for now, let’s stay with the positive. What I see here is a visual cue that is largely interpreted as ‘the kindness of strangers’.

Likewise, the Rabbi who returned $98,000 had made a transaction for a second-hand desk with someone with whom he previously had no connection. So we see two examples of people acting kindly and morally toward others because of some inner calling that directs them to interact with others in these ways in these particular moments. And, in both cases, what drives that decision is consideration of the ‘other’. As Isaac Theil was reported to have said to the traveler who took the photo, “He must have had a long day, let him sleep. We’ve all been there, right?”

I’d like to suggest one other frame for both of these stories. We are presented with individuals who, by appearance or title, are assumed to be observant Jews. While I know that many others without such an identity may have acted in exactly the same way in these circumstances and, in fact, people are demonstrating these acts of kindness every day (but rarely to this attention because there is nothing remarkable about their identity to make them stand out from the crowd), I think that many may be assuming that an underlying spiritual ethic is at least a part of the story here.

And certainly, Jewish ethics are in alignment with the choices that were made in these stories. So often, when I talk about Jewish ethics as abstract theory, I will find my students (teenagers or adults) reflecting on what feels like lofty ideals to aim toward but that are hard to truly live up to in practice. Many of the stories we have to illustrate these values are drawn from times and places that seem so distant from our own, featuring exemplary figures who are hard to emulate. Take, for example the following ethical statement that can be found in our morning liturgy:

“May one always revere God in private as in public.” [L’olam yehay adam y’ray Shamayim ba-seter u’va-galui].  It’s a bit like the question, “Does the tree make a sound when it falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it?”  (cited from The Wisdom of Judaism: An Introduction to the Values of the Talmud, By Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins, Jewish Lights Publishing).

And here is a story that illustrates this principle:

The Chaffetz Chayyim was once given a ride in a horse-drawn carriage. The driver, unaware of the identity of his passenger, stopped the carriage near a grove, and stepped down. After instructing the Chaffetz Chayyim to ‘call out if anybody sees me,’ he started to gather fruit from the trees in the field. Within a matter of seconds, the Chaffetz Chayyim called out in an agitated voice, ‘We are seen, we are seen.’ The frightened driver dropped the fruit, rushed back to the wagon, and drove off in great haste. After he had driven for a minute or two he turned around and saw that the road behind them was empty. He turned to the Chaffetz Chayyim in anger, saying, ‘Why did you yell out like that? There was no one watching me.’ The Chaffetz Chayyim pointed skyward: ‘God saw what you were doing. God is always watching.’ (as told by Joseph Telushkin in A Code of Jewish Ethics Vol 1: You Shall be Holy, p. 489).

Perhaps what we have in these two recent stories are simply contemporary examples of a spiritual ethics story; ones that we can relate to, that we can discuss and debate, find ourselves in more easily and, ultimately, be inspired by. 

Posted on November 13, 2013

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