The Neighborly Dilemma

Have you ever struggled with an ethical dilemma and then wondered if you’d made the right choice?  Did you ever find yourself looking heavenwards and exclaiming, “Just give me a sign!” Waiting for miracles is generally not the Jewish approach, but sometimes it turns out that the sign you’ve been waiting for isn’t hiding in a miracle at all.

Last week my neighbor approached my wife and informed her that the bushes on the far side of our yard by their house were rather overgrown, reaching into their gutters and generally looking ominous.  He asked that we take care of them before they caused any damage to his house.  While this sounded like a reasonable request, I curiously decided to research the situation a bit and discovered that, lo and behold, according to the laws of both the state and the Torah, the responsible party for the branches growing over my neighbor’s property is he and not me. And thus began the dilemma.

On the one hand, I really don’t like paying out money that I do not owe. I suspect most people are the same way.  And it wasn’t exactly cheap – the initial estimate from my lawncare company was $125.  On the other hand, I really don’t like being at war with a neighbor, next to whom I will be living for the extended foreseeable future.  We’ve all heard stories about angry neighbors causing havoc in someone’s life.  And whether or not he was justified in asking me to pay, I actually don’t know this neighbor very well and had no idea what he would resort to if I didn’t comply and what the consequences might be.  Was $125 a worthwhile cost for keeping the peace, even if I didn’t owe it?  What if this turned into a yearly request?  Was a $125 annual fee still worth it for membership in the good neighbors club?

The whole thing really rankled me — to be forced to pay a chunk of cash by someone potentially threatening any number of unpleasant outcomes, and also just to have to struggle with this while issue on account of someone else not knowing the law.  (Does anyone think this might have been resolved by my going over and telling him what the law is and then he’d apologize and agree to pay it all himself?  Me either.)

After much contemplation and consultation, I walked over the following morning, which was erev Yom Kippur, and offered to pay half, explaining that in fact I am not responsible for the foliage on his property but that I wanted to be neighborly.  He casually agreed and asked me to send the lawn company over to take care of it. (This was a nice reminder that assuming the worst in others is often not an accurate approach, not to mention not being in the spirit of dan l’kaf zechus, the injunction to judge others favorably.)

I spent the rest of the morning preparing for the holiday, rushing around on errands and managing some business issues at the same time, including fielding calls from potential clients. Among them were two calls from new clients asking, with a measure of desperation, if I had any open appointments today. This does happen from time to time, but it’s not so common; two in one day was, I think, a first for me.  And while the afternoon leading up to Yom Kippur is not an ideal time for seeing clients, they did sound urgent.  So I squeezed them in for the afternoon and headed home afterwards to find a handful of folks already tackling my bushes with aplomb and an array of sharp motorized tools.  My neighbor, overseeing them, greeted me and mentioned that once they had seen the enormity of the job up close, the price had shot up to $400, making my portion $200.  I glanced down at the paperwork I was still holding in hand from the two last-minute clients of the day… each of which had paid $100 for their session.

And there I had my sign.

We don’t always get such a satisfying confirmation from Above that we made the right choice.  But sometimes, just to remind you that He is watching and He does notice, He sends you a little wink and a nod.

And with that I went in to Yom Kippur.

About the Author
Rabbi Raffi Bilek, LCSW-C, was born in Montreal and currently resides in Baltimore, MD. He is the director of the Baltimore Therapy Center, director of the Montgomery County Abuser Intervention Program, and director of K'nafayim, a nonprofit dedicated to providing family services for the Jewish community of Baltimore and beyond.