Creating a responsible society

Yesterday was one of those days I ended up wasting a lot of time. It turned out I wasn’t needed at work and on top of that I didn’t have a car to get there and back, making it a major shlep.

I was thinking about the story I read this morning at breakfast in the book Holy Brother. It tells stories about Reb Shlomo Carlebach. Once Shlomo ended up in a far off country for a concert and the concert was canceled. At the same time a certain woman was busy looking for him. She was in an ashram and something woke her up to explore her Judaism. To her surprise and amazement he showed up at the center where she had been staying, and this turned her life around.

Years later he met her again and he told her that when he arrived at the ashram he had wondered why he was sent to this place, since the concert had been canceled. Of course he was referring to a metaphysical level of reality when he asked why he was sent, meaning: Why was he sent by God to take a trip this country, when there was no task for him to do there? And now he told this woman that as soon as he saw her that day he knew that this was why he had been sent.

He was able to say this because he didn’t complain over his ill fortune in traveling all this way for nothing. He always assumed there was a reason for everything. We just don’t always know what it is. This made him curious, never aggravated.

I decided I too would wonder why I was here. I could be curious and assume there is a reason for everything and that I just need to be open to what it is. Instead of thinking “Why is this happening to me?” I started to think: “How can I change through this?” Walking along in a leisurely pace, not even caring when there would be a bus to get home, I enjoyed the view. I took pleasure in walking past cars in gridlock. Most important I realized that when my schedule falls hopelessly behind it is a perfect way for time to lose its grip on me. It reminds me that time is just one of the parameters of life. I will do whatever I can with the time at my disposal and what I don’t have time for I won’t worry about.

As I was walking to the bus I thought back to the Talmudic passage we had learned yesterday. If someone is hired to take care of someone else’s cows and has them passing over a bridge together in a haphazard way so that one cow shoves another one and it falls off and breaks a leg, is the guard held responsible for the damage that’s caused as a result? He can claim “That’s what everyone does. You can’t expect me to be more careful than everyone else, and take them over the bridge one by one! This is the standard way of doing things!”

The court says to him “That’s true, but if you are getting paid to watch the cows, that’s exactly what you’re getting paid to do – to take more care in watching them than you would your own cows.”

According to this opinion he would not be held responsible if he was watching his friend’s property as a favor, without payment. On the other hand, even if he is not doing it for payment there is an opinion that this is negligent behavior, plain and simple. He could have foreseen that this is how cows walk across a bridge and if he doesn’t have them pass one by one, then one of them is sure to jostle another and make him fall. Just because everyone is negligent this does not mean he has to be negligent!

This reminded me of Rav Kook’s explanation of a certain Talmudic passage where he says that society corrupts. A individual left to his own innate goodness would not engage in some of the behaviors we engage in because of societal pressures.

I was soon shown another aspect of this on this during my bus ride home. There was a bag on the back of the bus that didn’t seem to belong to anyone. One man was trying to ascertain whether it was someone’s bag or whether it was perhaps a “suspicious object” which could, God-forbid turn out to be a bomb. There was an ever-so-slight panic in the vicinity until the owner of the said parcel was soon identified.

The man who asked around to find out whether the bag belonged to anyone was not unusual in doing that. We live in a society where people are alert to danger. We live in a society where people jump up easily to help one another when they are in need. These are good aspects of the society we live in. There are other aspects that need more work.

Society does not always corrupt. When all the individuals in society decide to listen to their conscience it becomes a society of conscience. In any given situation we can always sort out what is good about what society says and what is not.

Here was another lesson life presented me with, to supplement the Talmudic teaching of the day before. Yes, there is no excuse for being negligent in a negligent society, by saying “But everyone does it.” Additionally, the influence goes the other way as well. The individual can influence people around him to be responsible. And when there is a critical mass of responsible persons it creates a responsible society.

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