Monday, September 03, 2007

Elul 1 - Thoughts on Car Design and Brisker Mussar

Have you ever been driving down the road when somebody suddenly honks at you for no good reason? Perhaps they thought you cut them off, when really there was more than enough room for you to pass them safely, or they incorrectly thought that you were driving too slow, or they were too impatient to wait one minute as you pulled over to the side of the road to drop off a passenger.

When I'm in such situations, I sometimes wonder about the prospect of car companies adding a horn to the back of cars, so that people would not have to silently absorb the high-pitched abuse of a car horn behind them. Given a second horn installed on top of their trunk, they would be able to respond with a honk of their own, pointing out to their attacker that they do not accept the insinuation of wrongdoing on their part, but rather were the model of a perfect driver, despite the misplaced insult which they were subjected to.

Like many other inventions, a rear car horn is an innovation which is clearly better off not existing. Could you imagine the road rage that such an automobile feature would encourage, and the horn-honking battles that would ensue? Instead, one who is the victim of a car honk is left with no effective reciprocal recourse save to tuck their tails under their rear wheels and to keep driving. The situation of driving a car is a perfect setting for such a submissive response to an attack, being that, as one will never again interact with one's attacker, there cannot be any rationalizations of a need to respond to an insult in order to save face, and that it is relatively easy to evade an attacker by changing lanes, slowing down for a few seconds, or merely keeping your eyes on the road and not paying attention to the lunatic yelling at you through his and your car windows.

One evening when I was in yeshiva years back, the line for the main course at dinner was rather long, so I decided to fill my plate with bread, cucumbers, and cheese instead, and to go to pick up my portion of pizza at a later point. When I went to get my portion later on, the Romanian doling out the food refused to give me, claiming that I had already received. As I protestingly explained to him that I hadn't yet received my portion, the Israelis who were standing nearby all jumped to my aid and began to argue with the server. Thus outnumbered, the server conceded and gave me my portion of pizza, before letting off as a parting shot, "Ata shakran". Offended, I began to vociferously argue anew with the server, before one of the older Israelis pulled me aside, and said to me, "What do you care what he says?". The propriety of my having put myself into a situation where I would be thus suspected can be left as an exercise to the reader, but I realized that the older bochur was right - while arguing would make me feel better, it would not convince the server of my truthfulness, and thus it was not worthwhile for me to press the issue.

If I understand correctly, Brisk was/is known for an antipathy towards the mussar movement, claiming instead that "der bester Mussar seifer iz a blatt gemara". Nonetheless, it seems that one can learn out a very deep lesson utilizing the classical cheftza/gavra dichotomy that epitomizes the Brisker derech of learning. Too often, we find our actions driven by forces exerted by other people and a need to respond to their actions against us. Ultimately, though, we bear the sole responsibility for our actions. When faced with a challenge to avoid engaging in strife, taking revenge, using insults, or other interpersonal sins, our opposite can be considered as a cheftza d'issura. Much as a chunk of pork is a cheftza that enables one to be oveir an issur bein adam laMakom, the person whom we have the option to retaliate against is also a cheftza that enables us to be oveir issurim bein adam lachaveiro, opposite our own personal gavra who is responsible to do mitzvos and not to do aveiros. A gavra is capable of acting on a cheftza; it's silly and sort of sad when a gavra allows himself to be acted upon by a cheftza.

Of course, one should not make oneself into a shmata; there is a time for everything, and sometimes a harsh response is permitted, or even encouraged. Nonetheless, it should be borne in mind that in the supplication following Sh'moneh Esrei, we pray before HaShem, "V'limkalelai nafshi tidom, v'nafshi ke-afar lakol tihyeh" - May my soul be silent before those who curse me, and may my soul be like dust before all. Do we truly see value in this attitude and pray that we be given assistance in achieving this level, or are we uttering false platitudes in our tefillah?

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At 9/04/2007 8:24 PM, Anonymous chaim said...


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