In memory of Rabbi Professor Yaakov Yehoshua Ross z.l.
Some time ago I attended a conference on “To Love One’s Neighbor as Oneself.” It was packed with all sorts of people who wanted to learn how to practice this art. Everybody argued that it is easy to read about this great rule, but how do you do it in practice? We all knew that this is quite an art.
The conference had another very specific advantage: coffee and tea were on offer, and a free lunch, too, would be served. And so, the conference hall was packed to the last seat.
A famous rabbi and a psychologist delivered lectures and explained the legal-halachic and moral grounds of this law. They quoted many sources from the Talmud and Midrash (various works of biblical exegesis dating to circa 0-200 C.E.), and papers on psychology. We all became more and more convinced as to the tremendous importance of this mitzva, commandment, as well as how we could implement it.
The fact that coffee and tea were on offer together with a substantial lunch further convinced us that this conference was of the outmost importance. We could not wait to make our love for our fellows a top priority—it was now or never.
But then a strange thing happened.
When the conference was over and several buses were waiting to take us home, and, of course, our love for our fellows was overflowing, the width of the entrance of the conference hall became a problem. It could only handle so many people at one time, while large crowds started pushing their way out to exit first. One person fell and was injured, while another started shouting at people to move faster.
Even more remarkable was the fact that when these people entered the bus they were asked by the driver to move to the back of the bus so that the others could also get in and find seating. This all worked rather well—until there were no longer any vacant seats. Once there were no more seats, things got out of hand. People no longer moved to the back of the bus. So, the driver became nervous and called loudly: “Come on people, move to the back; there are still more people who need to get in.” This did not help, virtually nobody moved. Only some of the younger people eagerly gave their seats to the elderly, which is something I have only seen being done on a frequent basis in Israel. But the rest stayed put.
At that moment the driver, who was not wearing a kippa (skullcap) on his head, grew tired of pleading. He rose angrily from his chair, took the microphone in his hand, and delivered a fiery (and rather loud) sermon in unadulterated, not so civil, colloquial (to say the least) Hebrew. He also cited various biblical and Talmudic quotations, asking the passengers whether they had ever heard of “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This impromptu sermon far outdid all the rabbi and psychologist had said in the conference room. It was a masterpiece of “public” speaking. It was without equal! And it worked!
People immediately moved, made room for each other and a complete, awkward silence overtook all the passengers. Nobody said a word until the end of the journey. They had gotten the hint; not from the rabbi or the psychologist but from the bus driver who clearly should have spoken at the conference instead of the rabbi and the psychologist!
I always think about this incident when I read the newspapers or watch television. I read the deeply emotional speeches of our world leaders at the UN conferences and other political gatherings. They speak about mutual respect, world peace, the need for disarmament, etc. while simultaneously building nuclear reactors and telling us that these are “only for peaceful purposes.” They sell weapons to terrorists “so as to keep them under control.” They plead for depriving people of the right to keep and bear arms while concurrently producing arms en masse and arming their party members to the teeth, telling us that this only for self- defense. Obviously, they spend this week in Glasgow discussing climate change, a topic about which we will have more and more conferences as our air is polluted more and more, and the level of the sea increases substantially to dangerous levels, while almost nothing gets done on the ground.
This a worldwide phenomenon. Nearly all world leaders fill their mouths with the national interests and all other sorts of communal concerns, while in truth most of the time they are driven by self-interest…
Indeed, we know that behind this smoke screen of beautiful words and moral declamations lies a reality that makes all these speeches a complete farce.
What many of us do not understand is why we buy in to all these declarations, sometimes even defending them, while continuing to drink our coffee and eat our cake, much like we did at the conference on loving one’s neighbor as oneself.
How grown people, like us, keep on listening to these lies without even blushing, is for some of us a complete puzzle. Out of pure self-deceit we continue to watch these speeches on TV and the internet, sometimes several times a day, as if we are trying to convince ourselves that these world leaders are telling us the truth.
The great Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his book on the great Chassidic master the Kotzker Rebbe and the Christian Danish rebellious thinker Soren Kierkegaard, A Passion for Truth, Reflections on the Founder of Chassidism, the Kotzker & Kierkegaard, (Secker & Warburg , London, 1973), wrote:
“A lie may be defined as an attempt to deceive without the other’s consent. This definition assumes that there is a silent contract among men to speak the truth. Correct as this assumption is on one level, it occasionally challenged another. Publicly we will all pay homage to honesty; privately, however, we rarely resent flattery. We are indignant when we are fooled by others but live comfortably with our unconscious desire for self-deceit, being effusive when we flatter our own selves, deriving pleasure from wishful thinking . Mundus vult decipi, the world wants to be deceived.” (Page 159)
The main thing I learned from this conference is that we need fewer rabbis and psychologists, and more bus drivers.
Especially some bus and taxi drivers in Israel who often have a keen understanding of what really goes on and the lack of diplomacy to say it in civilized and sophisticated ways, rather shooting from the hip.
Anyway, next time I will take a bus or taxi instead of my car. And I hope to learn something new which I could not learn at any conferences I go to.
Love your fellow as yourself while you are in the bus!