One may ask, ‘What is a New York minute?’ Isn’t a minute a measure of time that is universal in all lands among all people and cultures? A minute is 60 seconds. And yet there it is – the New York minute. A very popular expression that says a lot about the culture of America’s most populous city… a city that is known as much for its Jewish population as it is for anything else.
The idea being that there is something about New York that is very fast… that is impatient. That has no time for anyone else but one’s own self interests. A minute that says, ‘Leave me alone.’ ‘Don’t bother me .‘ ‘I’m busy.’ It is a minute that in New York seems to go by faster than a minute does anywhere else on earth. If you want to describe how fast something happened, you might say that it was faster than a New York minute!
Now before all of my friends on the East Coast pummel me with virtual rotten tomatoes, I realize that this behavior is not exclusive to New Yorkers. And I also realize that there are many fine people in New York that have tremendous levels of patience and are as altruistic as anyone. They are not into themselves at all.
The point I’m trying to make here is a larger one. The truth is that to many of us that live in the modern world – we are to one extent or another guilty of ‘New York minutes’. We live in a world of self expression. We live in the time of ‘What’s in it for me?’ The time of the ‘selfie’!
While it’s true that we must be diligent in pursuit of life’s needs, that doesn’t mean we ignore our fellow man. And yet when it comes to raising children, this is the message many of us send. And I’m not sure that we even realize it. Most people will say that their behavior is just fine as models their children. But is it?
Rabbi Avrohom Birnbaum addresses this issue in an article in the Yated. For the record, this is not the first time I have discussed articles by Rabbi Birnbaum. The last time I did so – it was about a very critical piece he wrote against Gil Student and me. An article that so unfairly attacked us that Agudah spokesman, Rabbi Avi Shafran was moved to defend us publicly with an article of his own (by coincidence published exactly 2 yeas ago today). But this time I agree with Rabbi Birnbaum. He has pointed out a terrible trend of behavior among our young people. (And I include all Hashkafos). A trend I have often noticed myself. Here are some examples he cites:
It was Chol Hamoed Pesach in the local grocery. A distinguished member of the community was in the aisle, when a young man in his twenties barreled through with his cart, banging into the elder man’s foot. The young man pulled back his cart and went around – without saying a word! No apology. Nothing.
That same young man proceeded further, brushing past another shopper and pushing him off balance. There, too, not a word of apology. The first person he had hit observed this and mustered up the courage to approach the rushed young man and, with a smile, said, “The word is ‘excuse me,’ or ‘I am sorry.’” To his credit, the young man seemed a bit embarrassed and sheepishly said, “I thought I said ‘Anshuldikt.’”
A few days later, while waiting on line in a large supermarket in a large city, a young man who looked like he was in a rush pushed his way into an existing line, cutting ahead of others. I think he assumed that those waiting before him wouldn’t mind, because he only had a few items and they had fuller carts, but could he have been polite and asked? Actually, he should have been polite and asked.
Pulling out from the supermarket and waiting to turn left, a shopper who was turning left from the left lane notices, out of the corner of his eye, a car zooming from behind him at top speed, jumping past him into the right lane and then suddenly veering to the left, jumping in front of him and cutting into the left lane to get in front. It was illegal, it was dangerous, and it didn’t even save him time, because they were both stopped at the next red light together.
Clearly these young people see only the self as important. They have no patience and no humility. No sense of ‘the other’. It’s all about themselves and the ability to have as many New York minutes as possible. No matter who they inconvenience.
Of course it isn’t only Orthodox Jews that behave this way. This kind of behavior crosses all cultural lines, Jews and gentiles; religious and not religious. But that should not make any of us in Orthodoxy happy. Because we are supposed to be better than that. We Jews ought to be role models of behavior for all of society to emulate. As the chosen people of God, this is one of our mandates. So behaving badly – just like everyone else – ought not to be an option.
Which brings me to New York Times columnist David Brooks, He has written a book on exactly this subject entitled The Road to Character. It was reviewed by Forward editor, Jane Eisner. Here is a man that is not Orthodox (although he sends his children to religious schools) but who can teach us all a lesson. A lesson that he learned from one of Rav Yoshe Ber Soloveotchik’s masterpieces, Lonely Man of Faith.
Brooks talks about the very kind of thing that Rabbi Birnbaum addresses – the kind of behavior that that is so prevalent in today’ world. Beahvior that lacks character. He uses Rav Soloveitchik’s models of Man 1 and Man 2.
Man 1 wants to conquer the world and sees his own personal achievements as paramount. This is the Me-ism of todays world. Man 2 wants to cling to God and sees only moral concerns, completely divesiting from the self. Each of us has these to ‘men’ struggling within us. Mankind’s great achievements happen within the turmoil of conflict between Man 1 and Man 2. Brooks goes on to give historical examples of people who had this inner conflict and had achieved great things.
In our world today, it seems as though many of us are just Man 1. And we thus fail in achieving the character necessary to do great things. We ignore Man 2 and therefore lack the necessary modesty and humility of Man 2.
If we want our children to stop the kind of behavior described by Rabbi Birnbaum – which seems to be increasingly common these days, we have to first look at ourselves. There has to be some real introspection about our New York minutes. If we behave with modesty and humility in our lives as we pursue our personal needs our children will learn to do the same. But if we act with the kind of impatience that centers mostly on oneself, our children too will be self centered. And there will be a lot more of the kind of troubling behavior Rabbi Birnbaum saw.