Thursday, September 14, 2017

Nitzavim: The Shmooze Not Given

In this week’s parsha Rashi [29:28 s.v. Hanistaros, quoting Sotah 37b] pinpoints where Bnei Yisrael were na’asu arevin zeh lazeh, when they received the blessings on Har Grizim and the curses on Har Eval, though punishment for failures in this regard didn’t begin until the actually crossed the Yarden [Rashi again, quoting Sanhedrin 43b].

The interesting thing about the Rashi is how it expounds on the possibilities of both ascertaining a collective responsibility and to what extend said collective is actually held responsible.  However, it can also be instructive about how to give mussar [or whether to give it at all] on a more individual level, and possibly how important it might be to gauge both the intent behind the actions of the person being “instructed”, and even the person giving the mussar.

One of the more important reasons for giving mussar in the first place when warranted is to stop the commission of an undesired action or correct it in mid-course.   While one is supposed to accept the truth from whomever says it, and at times it behooves the recipient of the corrective to realize that the actual truth of the message being imparted is independent of its conveyor, it bears mentioning that the conveyor of the message must also realize that the perception of truth can be easily distorted when disseminated from a source clearly unqualified to convey the message.  

Kedoshim 19:17 delineates three steps: no hating [lo sisna], give rebuke [hocheach tochiach], but don’t put the target in a position where the infraction will be compounded [lo sisa alav chet].  Hence the degree of importance ascribed to both the motivation of the message carrier and the necessity to gauge the ultimate impact of the message.  In a day and age where anything with theological import is viewed with a jaundiced eye, and the political is almost always personal, not for nothing does Rashi say on Sotah 49b [s.v. v’ein tochachas] that the day will come where the effectiveness of mussar will be parried by the retort “you’re just like me”.

A recent mid-commute encounter might illustrate how a dilemma as to whether or not to give mussar might look.

A friend of mine regularly posts pictures on facebook of fellow commuters she finds acting in…well, a less than derech eretz-dikke manner on public transportation [“manspreading” being a frequent infraction of space occupation protocol].  In my case, it turned into, for lack of a better term, what I would call an anti-mussar moment.

The scenario was more or less that as I got onto the train, there was a “manspreader” taking up two seats when I could have used one.  Only he wasn’t a classic manspreader: despite the fact that he wasn’t quite parting like the Red Sea, nor nearly hefty enough to have an ostensible excuse to simultaneously take up a pair of seats, he had decided to occupy the centerpoint between the two seats.

The kicker in this case was that he was wearing a velvet yarmulke and sported a significant beard and visible tzitzis.  [Any more descriptors and one might actually begin to identify a particular sect, if I haven’t already given it away.]

So I had a dilemma pulling from all sorts of directions, but it came down to this: whether to point out what he was doing, and if so, how.

The dilemma centered around a number of issues, one set regarding whether he should have had his “infraction” pointed out, and the other set regarding whether it was appropriate for me to have given the rebuke. 

Regarding him:
  • Did he know what he was doing was inconvenient for other passengers?
  • Was he aware of straphanger protocol and simply ignoring it, or was he otherwise oblivious? 
  • Was he aware of the possibility that since he was so readily identifiable as an Orthodox Jew, he might not have been giving the best impression to a subway car full of rush hour commuters?   Or, again, did he not care?   Did his fellow passengers not care either?   [The latter question theoretically being the hardest to gauge an answer to.]

Regarding me:
  • Did I just want to give him mussar initially because I wanted one of the seats he was taking up for apparently no good reason?
  • Was I more inclined to “give him mussar” because, from his obvious appearances, chances were he was “frummer” than I was? 
  • Was I actually NOT inclined to give him mussar because of his appearance because, as I strongly identify as modern/left, I wanted to maintain my initial impression of his acting inappropriately as indicative of something lacking in his hashkafa and therefore his entire “brand” of frumkeit, and I wanted to continue to justify my ability to maintain my preconceived notions?
  • Was I—in an ironic manner worthy of Alanis Morrissette [or not]—actually now engaging in giving MYSELF mussar for both wanting to maintain an attitude of modernist self-congratulation, and for possibly—because of that—I have therefore almost deliberately disqualified myself from actually giving mussar in case where it might have been warranted and therefore will keep missing the opportunity to possibly fix a situation where something can be fixed, even if not necessarily this one?
  • A further irony: as I’ve always been disinclined to give mussar in a situation where I’ve gauged that the situation required “instruction” rather than “intervention”—would I now have to reverse that approach?

As it turned out, I disembarked long before the occupier, so I never did point out the infraction.  I also wonder whether another commuter who might give off a more aggressive or intimidating vibe than I usually do might have been able to end the occupation with a simple “Excuse me”, for the simple reason that he/she would have wanted the space [without giving a first thought to the hashkafic implications].

In any case, pace my still-held position that moral offense is [or should be] a contradiction in terms, or where the nefarious consequences meted out to those using spiritual means to further personal ends were previously illustrated, the real mussar haskel from this OCD-esque mental exercise might simply be this: if you stand to directly personally benefit from the administration of a moral admonition—better to defer, or demur.

It simply becomes something other than mussar.

No comments: