Have you ever tried to fold up a stroller and get multiple small children onto a bus, find your Metrocard and put it in properly (without losing sight of the children or dropping the stroller), get those children settled into seats and the stroller stowed away without bumping into anyone, and then keep those children reasonably quiet for 15 or 20 blocks? In the rain? Without help? Everyone on the bus seems to be looking at you in annoyance: annoyed at how long it took you to get onto the bus and anticipatory annoyance for the noise the kids are about to make.
One rainy day, after doing all of that, my attention turned to someone else, sitting in a two-seater with two kids who were soaking wet and crying. She was trying everything to calm the kids and quiet them down. They were inconsolable. Two people got on the bus and sat behind her and immediately started loudly complaining about the kids. She became more desperate to quiet them. They got more hysterical.
What if, instead of complaining and criticizing her, those people had offered to help her (as we and others on the bus did)? What if we reacted with generosity instead of judgment?
With the high holidays over, we can finally settle into our family routines and start to see which of our intentions we can hold onto and act on throughout this New Year. This is the one I’m working on.
We can’t control the world around us, but we can be aware of our own reactions and consider our actions. If we pause and notice our surroundings, we might consider that the person fumbling in front of us needs our help, or at the very least, our compassion.
Rosh Hashanah is also called Yom Hadin, the Day of Judgment. The metaphor of God as Judge, the image of the scales of justice measuring our good deeds and our regrettable actions, weighs heavily on many of us. But more often than not, it is our own judgment that is harshest.
We know our own flaws better than anyone and our radar for finding those flaws, in ourselves and in others, is very finely tuned.
But the real work of the Days of Awe is not just in locating those flaws and pledging to repair them. On Yom Kippur the scales tip towards compassion. That weighty day is actually considered to be the happiest day on the Jewish calendar, because in it is the opportunity to begin again. In each moment of judgment lies an opportunity for generosity.
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov taught: “You have to judge every person generously. Even if you have reason to think that person is completely wicked, it’s your job to look hard and seek out some bit of goodness, someplace in that person where she is not evil. When you find that bit of goodness and judge the person that way, you really may raise her up to goodness. Treating people this way allows them to be restored, to come to teshuvah.”
If we react with generosity, we give people the opportunity to do teshuvah, to reflect on their actions, and to grow. Reacting in anger and annoyance (and it is phenomenally hard not to do this—especially on email) is usually acting on the assumption that the person we are reacting to was acting out of the lowest of motives. And maybe they were. But pausing to imagine the possibility that they were acting out of pain, or fear, or clumsiness, challenging ourselves to find the bit of goodness that might be in there, will cause us to respond with generosity. It gives the other person the chance to meet that generosity and elevate herself.
This is could be true in our reaction to the woman on the bus—she’s not terrible at dealing with those kids; she is exhausted and stressed out and at her wits end and humiliated by the judgment she feels. It’s also true for the people behind her—maybe they got caught in the rain and are also exhausted or they are uncomfortable around children, or they are coming back from a scary doctors’ appointment, and we can model a different way to be.
How much more so with the people we actually know.
Even if a person pushes all of our buttons, even if they embody everything we think is wrong in the world, even if we really think they are legitimately terrible, if we look for that little bit of good, and respond to that part—the part that isn’t terrible, however infinitesimal it might seem to be—if we respond to that part, we’re showing them this is who they are too. We are showing them that this is who they can be. We can actually help them change their lives.
Now I am no Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. I want to be clear that this is no easy feat. But if we can do it? If we pause before we hit the send button to allow generosity to be our editor? If we set aside the judgment and create the space to allow people to be their best selves? What is harder than that?
I’ll tell you: being generous with ourselves.
I’m pretty sure no one on that bus was judging that woman more harshly than she was judging herself. I’ve been there: I’m a terrible parent. I’m a terrible person. We’ve all been there. Fill in the blank.
Rav Nachman knows what he’s asking when he tells us that if we figure out how to find that bit of good in other people, we should also do it for ourselves. “I know what happens when you start examining yourself,” he says. “’No goodness at all!’ you find. ‘Just full of failures and weaknesses and mistakes.’ But don’t fall into that trap. You, too, must have done some good for someone sometime. Now go look for it! But you find it and discover that it is too full of holes.”
You know yourself too well: “Even the good things I did,” you say, “were all for the wrong reasons. Selfish motives! The good stuff was too easy. It didn’t really count.’”
“Then keep digging!” Nachman tells us, “Keep digging, because somewhere inside that now-tarnished mitzvah, somewhere in it there was indeed a little bit of good. That’s all you need to find: just the smallest bit: a speck, a dot of goodness. And that is enough. Enough to give you life, to bring you back to joy.”
It works both ways. When we seek out that little bit in ourselves; when we judge ourselves that way; when we can be generous with ourselves, we show ourselves that that is who we are.