Don’t step on the little problems (Shabbos 7)

In the early 1970s, researchers at Princeton conducted an experiment with a class of young adults who were studying to become religious ministers.  They were asked to prepare a sermon about helping others and to deliver it in a studio across the road.  In the midst of their preparation, they were suddenly told that the studio was ready for them and that they should hurry right over.

Along the way, a member of the research team was seated on the ground in disguise, groaning in pain, and crying out for help.  Sadly, most of the students failed to stop to offer assistance.  The irony, of course, was that they were in too much of a hurry to deliver their sermon about helping others to even notice this man crying out for their help!

אָמַר רַבָּה בַּר שֵׁילָא אָמַר רַב חִסְדָּא: לְבֵינָה זְקוּפָה בִּרְשׁוּת הָרַבִּים וְזָרַק וְטָח בְּפָנֶיהָ — חַיָּיב. עַל גַּבָּהּ — פָּטוּר. אַבָּיֵי וְרָבָא דְּאָמְרִי תַּרְוַיְיהוּ: וְהוּא שֶׁגְּבוֹהָה שְׁלֹשָׁה, דְּלָא דָּרְסִי לַהּ רַבִּים. אֲבָל הִיזְמֵי וְהִיגֵי, אַף עַל גַּב דְּלָא גְּבִיהֵי שְׁלֹשָׁה. וְחִיָּיא בַּר רַב אָמַר: אֲפִילּוּ הִיזְמֵי וְהִיגֵי, אֲבָל צוֹאָה לָא. וְרַב אָשֵׁי אָמַר: אֲפִילּוּ צוֹאָה.

Rabba bar Sheila said that Rav Chisda said: If an upright brick was placed in the public domain and one threw an object and it stuck to its side, he is liable. But if the object landed atop the brick, he is not liable. Abaye and Rava both said: And that is specifically when that brick is at least three tefachim (handbreadths) high, as then the multitudes do not tread on it. However, thorns and shrubs, even though they are not three handbreadths high, are not considered part of the public domain, since people do not walk on thorns. And Chiya bar Rav said: Even thorns and shrubs are considered part of the public domain. However, excrement is not. And Rav Ashi said: Even excrement.

In the public thoroughfare, in order for an item to be noticeable, it must be at least three tefachim (approximately ten centimeters) high.  Anything lower than that height, people generally don’t pay much attention to, unless we’re talking about sharp objects or animal mess.  And when they don’t pay attention to it, Abaye and Rava note that people will tread right on it.

Most people are oblivious to their surroundings as they walk down the street.  We see that even in ancient times, unless the object was ten centimeters off the ground, people would walk right over it.  Even in the 1970s, amongst people who were presumably ‘observant’, very few stopped to respond to the needy individual who was begging for assistance.  And if that was the case in centuries gone by, today we’ve taken obliviousness to a whole new level.

We have pedestrians who are walking and texting.  We have cyclists who are listening to their music via Bluetooth earphones, and we even have drivers who are on video calls while cruising down the road.  Nobody’s paying any attention to what’s right in front of their eyes anymore.  Just wait for driverless cars, when we’ll be completely engrossed in ourselves with zero regard for our surroundings as we move from point A to B!

Sometimes it feels like the further away a cause is, the more passionate some people are about it.  They will feed the hungry in another continent, they will participate in political campaigns to find solutions for major world crises.  All of these causes are absolutely important.  But no less important, are the problems at our doorstep.

We have needy families in our communities, whether that means financially or emotionally.  We have tens of thousands of homeless people in every major city, most of whom are invisible because they manage to ‘couch surf’ between various friends and relatives.  But homelessness – having no fixed address – makes finding a job near impossible, and they end up in a vicious cycle.  No job means no home.  And no home means no job.  And no job means no social support.  And not to mention the spiritual crisis happening to our young generation, which is a whole book for itself.

These are real problems right in front of our eyes that we must never overlook.  The big problems are indeed big problems.  But, as caring individuals, we need to think about those who are suffering right before our very own eyes.  If Hashem has placed those individuals in our immediate physical space, He has done so because He believes that we can help them.

It might be a neighbour’s child who needs a little attention, such as help with their homework or just kicking around a football, because their parents are shift workers and unable to give them the necessary attention.  It might be the aged lady across the road who needs help shoveling her driveway or shopping during a cold spell.  Or sometimes it might even be your own children that you’re not giving adequate attention to, because you’re off solving the world’s problems.

It’s time to put down the phone and open our eyes to our immediate surroundings.  Life is made up of big challenges and smaller, closer challenges.  May you be equally aware and passionate about the problems right before your eyes as you are about the exotic causes!

About the Author
Rabbi of Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue, London, UK.
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