Responsibility

A Tree Grows In Babylonia

“orrect yourself and, only then, correct others.
— BT Bava Batra 60b

Last week, in the daily Talmud cycle, we studied one of my favorite stories. I have to share it. The Talmudic discussions on these pages are steeped in questions about ownership of property and the nature of public and private domains and the responsibility individuals have for the safety of public and semi-private areas. So far, this is interesting mostly for lawyers and property developers. Maybe not even. It can run a bit dry.

Suddenly we stumble on a wonderful story with legal consequences, which I will paraphrase, adding to the translation only words that are missing from the elliptical nature of any Talmud text:

"Rabbi Yannai has a tree that was leaning into the public thoroughfare. There was another man who had a tree that was leaning into the public space. The people there demanded that he take care of it. He came before Rabbi Yannai, who said to him "Go now and come back tomorrow. At night, Rabbi Yannai sent for a person to cut down his own tree. The next day, the man returned, and Rabbi Yannai said to him, 'Go cut down your tree.' He replied, 'But the Master also has such a tree.' 'Go and see. If mine is cut down, cut down yours. If mine is not cut down, you do not have to cut down yours.'"

Obviously, this man thought that asking a scholar with the same problem would allow him to keep his tree intact. He was not expecting this response. The scholars who discuss this story are troubled by what Rabbi Yannai's legal position was originally and why it changed. R. Yannai came to realize that the people who used this domain with its hanging trees felt comfortable telling a commoner to trim his tree but did not want to approach the rabbi out of respect. He, on the other hand, did not want to be treated any differently. Why, then they ask, did he not merely say to this man, "Cut down your tree and then I'll cut mine down?" That would have been a fair approach, but not the highest ethical approach to resolving this problem. They conclude that one must "Correct yourself, and only then, correct others." You can't require others to do what you are not first prepared to do yourself.

Here we might also make a fine distinction between role modeling and leading by example, even though these two descriptions are often used interchangeably. When someone serves as a role model, he or she often thinks about those watching and acts as an appropriate exemplar. There is, at least in my mind, a performative aspect to this, almost as if without an audience, the individual in question might let down his or her guard. When we lead by example, we are our best selves regardless of who is watching. We act the way we believe one should. If someone wants to learn from this example, they are welcome to, but we are not doing it to look better. We are doing it because it's the right thing to do, because it's the right way to be.

I believe Rabbi Yannai wanted to lead by example. Everyone can see his tree with its far-reaching limbs. Everyone was willing to give him a pass. He thought, as it states in the Talmud, that his tree was providing a service to others with its shade. It was not until this man approached him with his legal question that he realized his assumptions were incorrect. In fact, the proof that he led by example and not because people were watching is that he had the tree's limbs cut down at night, when no one was watching. He wasn't looking for a medal, for a community's approbation. He wanted to do the right thing because it was the right thing. He wanted to be better. Only then could he ask more of someone else.

"There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self," wrote Ernest Hemingway. Rabbi Yannai with the cut of a few tree limbs became a better version of himself. Only then could he ask the same of someone else.

Shabbat Shalom

Raising Kids to Give

You shall surely give to him, and do not give him with a heavy heart.
— Deuteronomy 15:9

Every Jewish holiday contains a mechanism for giving tzedaka. The happiness we typically associate with a holiday is dimmed if we cannot share it with others in need. Maimonides calls the joy of one who feasts at a holiday without providing for others "belly happiness." It's the narcissistic happiness of one who enjoys a full belly while others go with empty stomachs, envious of the food abundance of some and the inequity of their condition.
 
Passover is no exception. We are told explicitly in a Mishna that we are not allowed to give a poor person fewer than four cups of wine. We might easily delude ourselves into thinking that for a person who has nothing, one or two cups of wine would be plenty. But then we would be separating ourselves from them in the performance of this commandment. The Mishna does not tell us to provide four cups but rather that we not give less than four. Wealth can fool us into a sense of false generosity. In Zaide Smith's masterful new novel Swing Time, her central character ponders inequality and its cost: "No one is more ingenious than the poor, wherever you find them. When you are poor every stage has to be thought through. Wealth is the opposite. With wealth you get to be thoughtless."
 
In an attempt to fight this thoughtless with the approaching holiday, I was cheered to see a Wall Street Journal article with this title, "How Can you Raise Your Child to Be a Philanthropist?" (March 20, 2017). I would have much preferred a more modest title, like how to raise a child to give, but if you've ever read the "Mansion" section of the WSJ, it can create the false impression that all its readers are senior wealth managers raising junior philanthropists. The article spoke of starting them early, of the importance of supporting a charity over time, about researching causes with children. It's important that kids see their parents volunteering or sitting on boards and using their skills to help others. "Focus on the emotional uplift the good work does for the people who are helped. And reflection. Teach your children to think about why they are charitable, what it means to them. And biographies of charitable/philanthropic 'heroes.'" This is all good advice ,but it seems to miss something more primal about giving.
 
To fill in the hole, we turn to the medieval Spanish scholar Rabbi Yona of Gerona, where he interprets the verse above from Deuteronomy:

"The Torah wants us to develop an attitude of kindness and remove stinginess from our hearts. 'You shall, rather, surely give him, and do not give him with a heavy heart.' This verse requires us to distance ourselves from the trait of miserliness, but rather, to be generous. It is therefore not sufficient to simply give money; one must implant within himself a spirit of generosity... 'Do not harden your heart and do not close your hand from your indigent brother' (Deut. 15:7). We are hereby instructed to remove from ourselves the negative trait of cruelty and to plant instead the seeds of compassion and kindness, as it says, 'and you shall go in His ways' (Deut. 28:9)" (Sha'arei Teshuva 3:35-36).
 

Giving charity is not primarily about the mechanics of researching and investing, volunteering and leading. These are all manifestations of charity but do not touch upon what it really is: an inclination to give that derives from a deep sense of blessing and abundance that results in wanting to level social and financial inequalities. That's why you can't give a poor person two cups of wine when you have four, even if it is more than he ever dreamed he would have at his Seder. If you are truly charitable, it's not a hand out but a hand up, bringing that person to where you are.
 
Charitable giving can come across to those on the receiving end as a way to assuage the guilt of the one who has more. Giving lessens the guilt. But that does not create any real spirit of generosity. If you want to teach your children to give, take the focus away from money and shine it on expansiveness and gratitude. Teach justice and fight for it. Talk about inequalities in what children see all around them. Talk to them about why you are an agent for change.
 
Ironically, I think the article could have been renamed "How Can You Raise Your Parents to Be Philanthropists?" I say that because I see in so many children a natural sense of fairness, indignation when they sense injustice and a desire to make things better that their parents may be too jaded to notice. The innocence of the child makes the giving so much sweeter.
 
Four cups of wine for everyone at the Seder may one day grow advocates for social justice. Let the Seder be the philanthropist's classroom. Let the children teach the grown-ups.
 
Shabbat Shalom

Shared Pot

A pot belonging to partners is neither hot nor cold.
— BT Bava Batra 24b

Now that I have your attention...This is a classic case of bait-and-switch. You were probably misled by the title into thinking that we were going to discuss the sharing of cannabis (which would go nicely with The Forward's recent recipe for weed-infused matza balls, called affectionately, potza balls). But no. We are actually going to discuss a shared pot as in the kind that used to be the only kind of pot: a utensil or "a container, typically rounded or cylindrical and of ceramic ware or metal, used for storage or cooking."
 
But before that we are going to talk about e-mails. Ever put a lot of people on an email with a specific request and wonder why no one responds? In the psychological literature, this behavior has a name: the diffusion of responsibility. If it is not clear that one individual is singled out for a task, then the others automatically assume that someone else is doing it or, better yet, has already done it. This apparently grows stronger when the people included number three or more. If only one person is identified as responsible, chances are much higher that the reply button will be pressed and that the work will get done.
 
This can be irritating when you are assigning tasks as a boss, supervisor or parent. Sometimes we hide behind or within the masking of a group to avoid work. This has been called social loafing.
But diffusion of responsibility can also be more than annoying; it can present deeply moral problems when it explains the kind of group-think that allows bullying behavior to take place without comment or pushback or gives a certain license for inaction when standing on principle is more ethically appropriate. "Just following orders" is a way we disappear into the anonymity of the group and fight back more altruistic impulses.
 
This also may explain the significance of the well-known expression from Ethics of the Fathers: "In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man" (2:5). Pushing aside the gender problem, the teaching is simple. Any human being should assess the behaviors of others, and when they are found morally lacking, step into the breach. Do not wait for someone else to do the right thing. You may be waiting for a very long time.
 
Many years ago, I was teaching a leadership class and asked people, as a way of getting to know them, to write a quick six-word biography. This is a fun but tough exercise. With only six words to choose from, it's hard to know if you should list characteristics, tell a very, very short story or describe what you care about. Each participant made different choices. Only one told the story of himself as a moral agent. "Always do the right thing, period." The rest of the group nodded in recognition, as if they each wished they had written the same thing. His answer stuck with me all these years later. I bet he wasn't waiting around for someone else to volunteer first.
 
Now back to our Talmudic adage: "A pot belonging to partners is neither hot nor cold." The sages had their own understanding of the diffusion of responsibility two thousand years ago, even if they lacked the modern terminology. No one takes responsibility for something that belongs to many people. If people purchased a pot together, not one of the owners could tell you the temperature of its contents. The contents of the pot would surely have been hot or cold, but there was no one there to say either way. I only know one other expression with a pot - a watched pot never boils. Restated the rabbinic way: a pot owned by many is sadly never watched.
 
Shabbat Shalom