I suffer from quixotic syndrome. I’m always trying to change the world and get people to act the way they’re supposed to.
I shush women in shul (how can you talk in shul?) and men at weddings (seriously, you’re having a private business conversationAren’t I right, after all? during the most important time in a young couple’s life?); I get incensed when people cut ahead of me in line (and more incensed when service people allow this to happen) and frustrated with injustices done to me or others. I know for the most part that it never really helps and often makes people dislike me, but it’s an automatic reaction, like an English teacher correcting someone’s grammar.
And aren’t I right, after all? Aren’t there some things that are just plain wrong to do? And doesn’t Judaism teach tikkun olam, the effort to change the world for the better?
You obviously have a strong sense of justice, of right and wrong, and that’s admirable. There are many laws in Judaism that involve being fair and just, even in ways that the average person wouldn’t think of. For example, it isn’t permissible to ask a salesperson the price of an item you don’t intend to buy because this gives her the false impression that she might make a sale.
But while I commend you on your sense of justice, here’s my advice: Slow down. It says in the Torah, “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” Why the repeated word? Because justice should be pursued justly.
The Torah also tells us, “You shall reprove your fellow, and do not bear a sin because of him.” In other words, there’s a way to correct someone. Don’t do it in a way that will embarrass him, and it must always be done for his good. You need to reprove privately, gently and gradually, pulling the person close to you rather than pushing him away. In fact, if you reprove in public and thereby embarrass the person, not only have you not accomplished anything, you yourself have transgressed a biblical prohibition. And embarrassing or antagonizing another definitely won’t make him want to listen to what you have to say. (It’s also important to keep in mind that unless you see someone clearly violating a biblical prohibition—as opposed to a positive commandment—you aren’t required to rebuke someone unless you know that individual will listen.)
So here are some suggestions to help you make the world a better place in a better way:
Don’t Carry the Weight of the World on Your Shoulders
While it’s difficult to see injustice, rudeness and unfairness, there’s no getting around the fact that there’s a lot of it in the street, the workplace, and even (and maybe especially) in the halls of government and justice. You can’t possibly hope to deal with all of it. Pick one area, one battle, one cause that’s important enough for you to fight for, and then think of the most efficient way to contribute to this area. For example, if you see someone being treated unjustly in your workplace, you can try to influence your co-workers to act more kindly towards her. It’s commendable to seek to ameliorate the ills of society, but you have to do it in the most effective way possible and only in the amount you can handle.
Protect Yourself and Others
Avoid situations that set you off and will likely result in an altercation. For example, visit shops at times when there’s less likely to be long lines. When you’re at shul or an event, position yourself in a place where you won’t be disturbed by other people. Depending on the situation, you can even distract yourself by listening to music, saying psalms or checking email on your phone at times when overhearing other people’s conversations or activity will draw you into some kind of disagreement. You know that old saying about avoiding talking about politics and religion? It’s good advice. If you know your opinion won’t be listened to, avoid a subject where you feel compelled to give it. Talk about other things.
Associate With People Who Have Similar Values
Find a shul that doesn’t tolerate banter during services. Stand with a group of friends who are quiet during a chuppah. Patronize places of business that treat their customers respectfully and expect customers to do the same. Choose to work in an ethical environment where people’s rights are respected. Deal with organizations that operate on logic. We can’t change other people, but we can choose the type of people to associate with more often than we think.
Tone Down Your Emotions
It’s much easier to accept criticism or intervention when it’s not being offered on a tidal wave of emotion. If you try to make your point quietly and succinctly—“Excuse me, I believe it’s my turn”—instead of haranguing the person for inconsideration, you’re more likely to achieve the end you want. This goes even for emotion-laden topics like religion and politics. State your point calmly and quietly. King Solomon said that the words of the wise are heard when spoken calmly.
Be the Change You Want to See in the World
The best way to influence others is to inspire them with your own impeccable behavior. If you don’t like it when people cut in in line, don’t only patiently wait your turn, let others go ahead of you. If you don’t like when people talk disrespectfully in shul or at weddings, model attentive and respectful behavior. Always present the paradigm of how you want others to act. Maybe not everyone will imitate your behavior, but some will definitely take note of it.
Wishing you tulips as well as windmills,