The mensch test
Last Friday, I was rushing through a to-do list from hell. It’s High Holy Days season, which means my rabbi wife disappears into her study, and if she emerges before five sermons are finished, it’s a sign that fall will be extra harsh, or at least seem that way.
So the list was all on me, and by 11 a.m., I had barely made a dent. I raced through Santa Monica Kosher, loading up my shopping cart until the wheels splayed, then headed for the cashier — where I was, miraculously, first in line.
If you’re strictly the Ralphs or Amazon Fresh type, let me describe Santa Monica Kosher, or as I call it, S&M Kosher. The clientele is largely Persian Jewish, except on Sundays, when they set up a BBQ grill in the parking lot and the smoke from the koobideh and kebab lures Latino families by foot and Brentwood types by Tesla. The produce is varied, fresh — and a bargain. You can find exotic flatbreads, Israeli cheeses, organic meats, even “Original Pistachios,” which means they’re really from Iran — and the best you’ve ever tasted.
But on the day Shabbat begins, it can be a blood sport. Can you get to the cucumbers before the grandmother parks herself in front of them and inspects them, one by one, as minutes tick by? Can you grab the attention of the man behind the meat counter before the customer who came after you commandeers him? Sure, there’s a ticket dispenser, but I think it’s for decoration. Or Ashkenazim.
And at the cashier, the shopper in front of you always seems to use the conveyor belt as her personal shopping cart, putting down a bunch of fenugreek, then going off and returning with a bag of chicken thighs, then leaving again to bring back some eggplant — oblivious to the line growing ever longer behind her.
So imagine my relief to be first in line at the checkout. The problem was, when I looked behind me, I saw a middle-aged Persian woman holding four items in her hands. She’d wait 20 minutes for me to get through.
I said, “Please, go ahead.”
Her tense face melted. “Really?” she said. “Are you sure?”
“Oh, you are so nice!” she said. “You have done your mitzvah for the day. For the week!”
As she moved ahead, she said to the cashier, “Did you see what he did?”
Either she was laying it on thick, or she was genuinely shocked — which might just reflect how rare it is for her to come across an act of kindness in the bustle of the Friday market.
Then another woman got in line behind me — and she had two items. Really? The clock was ticking on my to-do list — and my parking meter. But what could I do?
“Why don’t you go ahead?” I said.
The first woman overheard my offer. She turned to the cashier. “Did you hear that? This is the nicest man! I think this is the nicest man!”
The cashier smiled. The elderly Persian man wearing a security guard uniform, who doubles as a grocery bagger, didn’t even look up.
Maybe he didn’t understand English. Or maybe he suspected that as nice as I was face to face with a kindly woman at S&M Kosher, 20 minutes later I’d be in some parking structure, screaming at the SUV in front of me who was crawling up all three levels looking for a space. Go faster, you idiot. Just go! And I would blast my horn like a shofar — which, by the way, is exactly what happened.
Almost as quickly as I earned my sainthood, I blew it away. It’s true we all tend to be nastier versions of ourselves behind the wheel — or behind a computer screen. But what’s also true is that if we can control our harshest impulses, no matter where, we always feel better.
There was a lot of commentary after the violence in Charlottesville and after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma about the power of exercising “the better angels of our nature.” Americans came together in times of tragedy and emergency, put aside their differences, and helped one another.
But then, more often than not, the better angels take a hike. We go back to nursing our grievances, emphasizing our differences, taking advantage, losing our patience, distancing ourselves from other people’s needs when they aren’t part of an urgent disaster or on CNN.
In other words, being an angel is easy, being a mensch is hard. Angels make the news, mensches make a few minutes a little better.
But those minutes add up, and they are the minutes that most of us experience as daily life. That’s why, in the wisdom of the tradition we follow these High Holy Days, the liturgy doesn’t ask us to be great, just good. The faults we are held to account for — such as stubbornness, gossip, indecision, anger — they don’t make us evil, they just make the people around us a little worse for wear.
In these messy, cruel, divided and confusing times, I don’t really see a grander path forward than each of us struggling to behave a little better to the person beside us, and to the person we can’t see.
Let the struggle begin, again, for 5778.