Week 1, Day 1
On Hearing a Siren
What is your reaction when you are talking with a friend and your conversation is suddenly interrupted by the piercing wail of an ambulance siren? Is it pure sympathy for the person inside -- or about to be picked up by -- the ambulance, or do you feel some measure of annoyance? Similarly, how do you react when you are awakened from a deep sleep by a series of clanging fire trucks or the wail of a police car?
I am embarrassed to admit that, along with many others, my initial reaction to such noises is often impatience and annoyance rather than empathy. My friend Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, known throughout the Jewish world as "Reb Zalman," suggests that whenever we hear the sound of a passing ambulance we offer a prayer that the ambulance arrive in time. Similarly, whenever our sense of calm is interrupted by fire trucks, we should pray to God that the trucks arrive in time to save the endangered people and home. We should also pray that no firefighter be injured. And when we hear police sirens, we should implore God that the police respond in time to the emergency.
Reb Zalman's suggestion is profound. By accustoming ourselves to uttering a prayer at the very moment we feel unjustly annoyed, we become better, more loving people. The very act of praying motivates us to empathize with those who are suffering and in need of our prayers. Furthermore, imagine how encouraging it would be for those being rushed to a hospital to know that hundreds of people who hear the ambulance sirens are praying for their recovery.
Speaking to a Jewish group once in Baltimore, I shared Reb Zalman's suggestion. After my talk, several people commented on how moved they were by this idea, but one woman seemed particularly emotional when she spoke of this suggestion. When she was ten, she told me, she had been awakened from a deep sleep by passing fire trucks. It was almost one in the morning, and now, twenty-five years later, she still remembered her first response: it was so unfair that her sleep had been ruined.
The next morning she learned that her closest friend, a girl who lived only a few blocks away, had died in the fire. Ever since, she told me, whenever she hears fire trucks go by, she prays that they arrive at their destination in time.
Loving one's neighbor is usually carried out through tangible acts, by giving money or food to those in need, by stepping in and offering assistance to a neighbor who is ill, or by bringing guests into one's home. But sometimes loving is expressed through a prayer that connects us to our neighbor, even when we have no way of knowing just who our neighbor is.
Weeki 1, Day 3
The Purchase That Is Always Forbidden
One may not buy wool, milk, or kids from shepherds. Nor may one buy wood or fruit from the watchmen of orchards. . . . [Even in instances where it is permitted to buy something], in all cases in which the seller asks that the goods be hidden, it is forbidden [to make such a purchase]. . . .
-- Mishna, Bava Kamma 10:9
Common sense lies behind this ancient ruling. There is no way you can know for certain that the shepherds or watchmen have stolen the items from their employers, but common sense suggests that if they are offering for sale precisely those items they are paid to guard, they have probably acquired them illegally.
In modern terms, imagine that the checkout man at your local supermarket meets you on the street and tells you he can deliver dairy goods to your house at half the price you pay at the supermarket that employs him. You can't be certain that he is acquiring the products illegally, but nonetheless, Jewish law says that in such a case you should regard the person as guilty until proven innocent, and refuse to purchase food from him.
Similarly, one sees on the streets of many American cities people selling videos of recently released movies for a fraction of what they cost in stores. Since reason suggests that such films have been "pirated" (illegally copied) or stolen -- how else can one account for the cheap price at which they are being sold? -- Jewish law would prohibit purchasing them.
As a rule, otherwise honest people who buy stolen merchandise continue to regard themselves as honest, and certainly see themselves as being on a higher moral rung than the people from whom they have purchased their goods. Maimonides makes it clear that Jewish law does not share this view: "It is prohibited to buy from a thief any property he has stolen, such buying being a great sin, since it encourages criminals and causes the thief to steal other property. For if a thief finds no buyer, he will not steal" (Mishneh Torah, "The Laws of Theft" 5:1).
An actual, if less obvious, instance of dealing in stolen goods, the insider stock-trading scandal, occurred in the late 1980s in the New York financial markets; in that case, a financier paid employees of law firms and financial institutions to inform him when companies with which they dealt were going to be bought out. Knowing that the stock prices in those companies would rise substantially, the man bought shares and, over a number of years, made tens of millions of dollars in profit. When his scheme eventually was exposed, he, along with the people who supplied him with the information, was sent to prison. From my understanding of Judaism's perspective, purchasing information that the seller has no right to market is yet another way in which a person traffics in stolen goods.
Very simply, if someone is trying to sell you something that is not his to sell -- whether goods or information -- you have no right to buy. As it is written in Proverbs (29:24), "He who shares with a thief is the enemy of his own soul."