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Operation Inspiration

By Rabbi Jonathan Gewirtz

After You (Sometimes)

“Never judge a man,” they say, “until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes.” That way, I guess, even if he gets angry, you’re a mile away and you’ve got his shoes.

But truthfully, it is very hard to be really sensitive to someone until you’ve experienced what they have. And, since the odds are that you will not be able to experience exactly what someone else has because every experience is built on the previous cumulative life experiences of each person, you simply shouldn’t be judging. That’s not to say you shouldn’t try to be sensitive, just that you won’t likely succeed fully because your brain isn’t in that mode. Well, one day, I got to put myself in someone else’s shoes – but I didn’t like it. 

I was driving down the road and a car was trying to back out of a driveway onto the main roadway. Normally, especially with a red light ahead, I would have slowed down and waited for him to pull out, but for some reason, I zipped around the waiting vehicle instead and figured I’d let the car behind me let him go. 

In hindsight, I realized that wasn’t such a good idea. And when I say hindsight, I mean the rearview mirror, because as I glanced in it, I saw that the next car did exactly the same thing and went around the waiting driver, putting himself first. I got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I realized that I had just been selfish and uncaring. That’s NOT who I want to be and it hit me pretty hard. 

The question is, how did the person behind me feel? I would like to imagine they felt as bad as I did, but I don’t really know. It could be that they were gleefully exuberant that they’d cut off the car and gained for themselves an additional second, and even that isn’t a sure thing. I mean, what did they really gain? What did I really gain? I was now experiencing the other side of the coin of my normally conscientious self and it really opened my eyes.

I can tell you what I lost. I lost the opportunity to help another human being. I could have given them the space to complete the challenging maneuver of backing out onto a busy road which would have made them feel calmer. It could have made them feel cared for, as I was aware of their needs. In places with heavy pedestrian traffic, most drivers can attest that sometimes people cross the street because they “always have the right-of-way” even if they’re walking against a light, and it hurts the drivers’ feelings.

If I’m trying to turn, or even go straight, and you stop me, you’ve stolen from me. Now, if it’s raining and you’re getting wet, I understand. But if you’re just impatient, why not think about the fact that the drivers have places to go also, and by slowly crossing the intersection, or running across after the light has changed, you’re taking away the other person’s time? More than that though, you’ve made the statement: “I am more important than YOU!”

If someone cuts in front of you in line, does it bother you? It bothers me. It’s a declaration that their time is more valuable than mine. How would they even know that? Do they know what I have to do? Maybe I’m about to go write my article and give pleasure to so many people!

But you know what? I’d rather be the one who was cut off than the one doing the cutting off. I would not want to be the one who is the source of someone else’s pain or hurt and now I know that from personal experience. 

There’s a psychological question that people used to ask. You’re on a plane, do you choose the window or aisle seat? Of course it’s a ridiculous question. I mean, who flies anymore? But work with me. Which seat do you choose?

While it isn’t 100% accurate, the psychological hypothesis is that people who choose the aisle sits don’t want to bother anyone to get up if they want to get into the aisle, and don’t mind getting up for others. The people who chose window seats selfishly don’t want to be bothered but don’t mind bothering someone else if they need to get up. It’s an intriguing way to look at life.

I before thee, except after see. Having seen what it means to put myself first, and recognizing that it is not the Torah way to live, I have a hard time “looking out for numero uno,” at the expense of others. Chazal phrase it, “Why is your blood redder than his?” We’re all people who have things to do, but one of those things is thinking of the others who have things to do too.

I hope you never have to have the experience that I did that day, and that we can all internalize the lesson and learn from my experience, but just this once, I’m not going to sit back and wait for you to go first. I’m going to make sure I’m thinking of others first, and you can follow my lead. I mean, I’ve got to protect myself, right?


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