Time was when you saw a person talking to himself you assumed he was deranged, or at least a little off. These days, of course, prattling people wired up or Bluetoothed are commonplace. The unhinged are well camouflaged among the masses.
The middle-aged woman in the elevator didn’t even have anything in or clipped to her ear; she was holding an actual, physical cellphone near the side of her face. And so, when she said, once, and then again, “Which is the way out?” I wondered to whom she was speaking and what topic was being discussed.
It was the end of a workday in downtown Manhattan, and only the woman, whom I hadn’t ever encountered before, was in the elevator when it stopped at my floor. I didn’t mean to eavesdrop but had little choice. So I started to imagine what might have yielded her repeated, somewhat urgent-sounding question. A tax problem? (April was imminent.) A troubled relationship? Some existential crisis?
Following elevator etiquette, I faced the door. But, for some reason (in retrospect, probably siyatta DiShmaya), I turned briefly in the woman’s direction. It was a good thing I did. Phone or not, she had been talking, I realized, to me. Her expression, telegraphing annoyance bordering on irritation, made that very clear.
After a moment’s speechlessness born of surprise, I managed a smile and said “I’m sorry. What were you asking?” And she explained that she wanted to know which floor was the way out of the building. I told her that floor number “1” was the lobby, and apologized for not having realized that she had been speaking to me and for ignoring her question. Her earlier chagrin seemed to evaporate. When the elevator landed at the lobby and we left our temporary prison, I wished her a good night and she wished me the same.
During the trek home, I pondered several things. First, self-defensively, how is it that one might assume, especially when one is holding a phone, that others realize that you are addressing them? A simple, loud “excuse me” to get their attention would, to my lights, be in order.
Then, though, turning inward, I pondered how getting lost in one’s thoughts isn’t an indulgence one should choose when others are around, even other strangers. I was reminded of the fact that Hillel Hazakein’s version of what society calls the “Golden Rule” differs from that of other cultures. He framed it in the negative: “What is hateful to you do not do to others.” That might seem a weaker version than “Do unto others …” But just the opposite is true: It is both more challenging and more meaningful to be on constant alert to not, consciously or otherwise, do something objectionable to another person.
A third thought, however, quickly edged out the others: What had happened almost hadn’t.
Had I not for some reason turned around briefly, I pondered, I would never have realized that it was me my co-prisoner had been addressing. She would likely have just judged me a boor for ignoring her, left the elevator when I did, and gone on her way, all the while angry at the rude man who wouldn’t answer her simple question. The rude Jewish man.
Many people tend to generalize when they feel they have been offended by a member of an identifiable group, be it racial, ethnic or religious. But while a black or Mexican or Asian or Muslim may not particularly care whether others see his actions as confirming a negative group stereotype, a visibly Jewish Jew must care indeed.
So thought #3 was about how very careful we Orthodox Jews need to be to avoid offending others — even when we don’t mean to do anything of the sort. Part of that carefulness involves being aware of those around us in public places. That’s not so simple a matter for observant Jews, as our convictions usually point us in the direction of inward focus, and keeping the outside at bay. But on the other side of the scales is, chas v’shalom, the possibility of causing, even inadvertently, others to think of our people and our faith negatively.
It’s a delicate balance, but a most important one, all the same, to strike.