The Sign on the Bus

“You shall stand up before the gray head and honor the face of an old man, and you shall fear your God: I am the LORD.”

Leviticus 19:32 (ESV)

The Torah (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 244:1) tells us to rise before old people aged seventy or older, even if they are not Torah-scholars, out of respect “for the trials and tribulations they have undergone” ( Talmud Kiddushin 33a)

-quoted from sichosinenglish.org

On the bus you will find a sign saying, “Mipnei Sevah Takum” … The sign on the bus confronts the bus rider with the command, “Stand up for the elderly!”

-by Lawrence Grossman
“Jewish Ethics, from Ancient Bible to Modern Bus”
Jewish Ideas Daily

My wife read to me from one of the email newsletters she gets periodically, probably from Chabad, about the signs you see on Israeli buses to “stand for the elderly.” The signs are used to indicate certain seats that are set aside for older people or anyone else who would have trouble with mobility or standing for long periods of time. The irony, as pointed out in Grossman’s article, is the “collision” between the holy and the secular. Even though the majority of Israel’s Jewish population isn’t religious, the Torah and the intent of God cannot be so easily removed from being Jewish.

In quoting Leviticus 19:32, my wife made the same sort of remark as Grossman did in his news story. Then she said an interesting thing. She said that, for a Jew, it is impossible to separate loving and obeying God with being good to other human beings. She quoted from a teaching of the Baal Shem Tov (which I don’t have immediately available to me) to support this point.

I agreed with her and remarked that I often say the same thing, however I declined to mention that my source is from a different teacher:

“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” –Matthew 22:36-40 (ESV)

As far as I can tell, Jesus is saying the same thing: Loving God means loving human beings. You can’t separate the two. If you say you love God and you hate people, something is wrong with your love for God.

But it’s not easy to love other people, at least not all other people. After all, who gets along with everyone all of the time? I don’t. And yet Paul added some commentary (midrash on Torah, perhaps) that speaks to this very issue.

Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. –Romans 12:17-18 (ESV)

Oh snap! Really?

Going to verses 20 and 21, Paul adds, “…if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. It almost sounds like Paul is connecting his message to the Romans back to what the Master said in Matthew 25:31-46. If so, then giving food and drink to our “enemies” and not just our friends, is the same as feeding a hungry and thirsty Jesus. Does that mean we will be rewarded for serving our enemies as if we were serving Christ?

That’s a startling thought.

So doing good to others, even if you don’t want to, and even if they’re your “enemy” (in this context, it means a person you don’t like, not someone who is trying to kill you in war) is a very Christian value. And yet we see it is also very Jewish.

But more importantly, it just isn’t Christians being good to Christians and Jews being good to Jews:

“They said of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai that no man ever greeted him first, even idol worshippers in the market” [i.e., Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai was the first to greet every person, even idol worshippers] (Berachot 17). At the same location the sage Abaye advocated soft speech and words of peace to everyone, especially including idol worshippers.

“[it is proper to] support the idol worshippers during the sabbatical year… and to inquire after their welfare [commentators: even on the days of the holidays of their idols, even if they do not keep the seven Noahide commandments] because of the ways of peace.” (Shevi’it 4,3)

The rabbis taught: ‘We support poor Gentiles with the poor people of Israel, and we visit sick Gentiles as well as the sick of Israel and we bury the dead of the Gentiles as well as the dead of Israel, because of the ways of peace.” (Gitin 61a)

I “borrowed” those quotes from an older blog post of mine called What the Talmud Says About Gentiles, Revisited as a reminder of who is the root and who is the branch.

Lately, I’ve been writing about why loving isn’t easy and why we should love even a person who leaves the faith and becomes an atheist. Quite the opposite of what you’d expect, religious people have the toughest time loving each other and especially loving people who are different in their religious orientation than they are. In spite of the supposed similarities between Christians and Jews (Judaism being the foundation of Christianity), we have a very hard time being civil with each other on certain occasions.

The conversation going on right now at Gene Shlomovich’s blog Daily Minyan is one minor example. Actually, the transactions are pretty civil for the most part, especially when I recall the verbal “blood bathes” I’ve witnessed in the past. However, even between Gentiles and Jews who are all disciples of the Jewish Messiah, we have a long way to go.

And yet God tells us that if we love Him, we must love other people, even if we don’t always like them. The next time you are tempted to think of yourself as especially holy and righteous, recall the last time when you had thoughts and feelings of disrespect and hostility for your fellow human being.

Maybe we can rescue some feelings of humility from this experience.

2 thoughts on “The Sign on the Bus”

  1. “And yet God tells us that if we love Him, we must love other people, even if we don’t always like them. The next time you are tempted to think of yourself as especially holy and righteous, recall the last time when you had thoughts and feelings of disrespect and hostility for your fellow human being.”

    James… I think that “love your enemies” in this context means doing good to unto those who have animosity toward you or have somehow wronged you. However, to throw the proverbial monkey wrench, if mere feelings of disrespect, hostility or even name calling of worst sorts were signs of lack of love, how would one explain Jesus’ confrontations with his opponents and his name calling, i.e. “brood of vipers” in Matthew 12:34,. “child of hell” (Matthew 23:15), or even the infamous deserving-of-hell-fires “fools” (Matthew 23:17)?

    Some would say that Jesus was not against “accurate” name calling (i.e. calling spade a spade), but what is there to prevent us, for example, from lashing out and disrespecting at some of our opponents in similar “accurate” ways if we believe the description truly fits the bill, while claiming that we love them?

  2. That’s certainly difficult to address. On the one hand, we have the example of the Master, who certainly was forthright in his comments and “called ’em like he saw ’em.” On the other hand, we trust that the Master would judge and act out of complete impartiality and with total justice and mercy. He is the example we all aspire to be like, and yet never quite measure up to.

    All I’m saying is that, in our own human fallibility, me might want to go to extra mile in showing love and mercy, because we can’t always be sure our “righteous judgment” of another human being is completely impartial.

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