Friday, June 22, 2012

Jews Against Korah

2 Tammuz, 5772
June 22nd, 2012
Parshat Korah
            A few years ago, at a Coffee Bean, I watched a young woman put her stuff down, and then go in to order. A few older gentlemen arrived afterwards and, seeing that she had claimed their favorite table, surreptitiously moved her belongings to the ground. When she came back, they claimed that they had not seen her possessions.

            Now I have a bit of a superhero complex, so I stood up and, in public, told these gentlemen that the seat was hers, and that they should not have disregarded her (let's just say my wording was different).

            To their credit, the men moved. But afterwards one of their number confronted me. I'll never forget how livid he was.

            What remains with me from the incident is that we were both justified. The men lied to that woman and tried to take advantage of her. But in order to confront them, I took them apart in public. There is no way to experience such a situation except as deeply humiliating, and I can understand his anger.

            It seems to me that we have no real way to politely critique social behavior. As far as I can tell, all that's available to us is either to ignore the peccadilloes of others or confront them. The confrontations rarely yield the desired result.

            This lack is a problem. Everyone offends, even egregiously. No person lives blamelessly. But when our only two options are to suck it up or go toe-to-toe, life becomes an unpleasant combination of repression and aggression - rarely reconciliation.

            In 1994, Bogota, Colombia was a mess. The murder rate was triple that of New York City. The traffic fatality rate more than quadruple. There was so little acceptance of traffic laws that to cross the street was literally to take one's life in one's hands.

            That year, a very quirky man named Antanas Mockus became mayor. Mockus implemented policies that would make him a laughingstock. He positioned, of all things, mimes at traffic lights. When a person would run the light or similarly be a jerk, the mimes would follow their car (Bogota is congested), and silently mock the driver to the amusement of those around. He also sent the citizens of Bogota red and green cards, just like in soccer, and told them to thrust the appropriate card in the air when someone acted for good or ill.

            People thought this was hilarious. When traffic fatalities dropped by 50%,  and homicides by 70%, they stopped laughing.

            The point is that when there are relatively harmless and inoffensive ways of communally critiquing social behavior, life gets a lot better. I would take a mime over a furious email every day of the week and twice on Shabbes.

            In the Book of Judges, the Bible describes people doing, "ish hayashar be-einav,"   - every person doing that which was right in his/her own eyes. Please understand, Tanakh means this as an insult. To act without regard for the feelings of others is boorish, not independent.

            To build a community of learning is our mission. And Jewish learning is not academic. We must ask the question how do we, communally, make ourselves better. The rewards reaped by the answer will be enormous.

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