I’m not a person who enjoys the pulsing excitement of large crowds. One of the best perks of being a rabbi with pulpit responsibilities was getting to sit on the bimah during the High Holidays and not having to press through the throngs of congregants, whom I adored on a one-to-one basis, but who made my blood pressure rise when they surrounded me in prayerful swarms.
Purim carnivals make me dizzy with the grating noise of the groggers, blaring music, and urgency of children running from station to station to count royal jellybeans or throw a sponge at Haman’s face. Jostling, pushing, and large numbers of people in confined places make my heart pound just a bit more intensely.
When I made my regular Monday morning grocery run this week, the market was overrun with shoppers.. The checkout lines drifted back all the way past the canned goods through the walls of pasta shells and even beyond the frozen pizzas. Carts were brimming with bottled waters, gallons upon gallons of milk, dozens of eggs in the hazy side of the twelve-times-table, and of course, loaves of bread. A snowstorm was predicted in my hometown for the following day, and the entire city lost its communal mind.
I’m all for advanced preparation and keeping my loved ones safe and fed when the roads are impassible. This storm, however, is predicted to last for just one day. The road cleaning crews in my town are excellent, so even the most fearful driver who grew up near palm trees or cacti should not be housebound for too long.
I’m always somewhat amazed to witness human behavior that seems erratic or extreme. An anthropologist or psychologist would have been in heaven observing the behavior at Shop Rite that day. A few customers were brazenly migrating from one line to another, and I commiserated with a chatty shopper as we shook our heads in disbelief—but we agreed to allow this slight to take place without an outburst.
We were witnessing something more primal than anxious people who desperately needed to restock peanut butter or brace for the treacherous impact of a predicted storm. As I helped my new buddy in the line unload her cart, I realized that I had never in my life touched so many containers of deli wrapped lunchmeat. This was survival mode.
Everyone standing in the lines was staring into their very technologically advanced smartphones. We were purchasing foods that had been grown in countries across the world and that had been delivered to us through impressively coordinated systems of transportation. Yet, in spite of our 21st century surroundings, we were acting more like the squirrels hopping around my backyard, trying to get a jump on the oncoming heavy snow and high winds.
Something deep within our cells was compelling us to fill those shopping carts, purchase those highly caloric and strangely tinted cheese snacks, abandon our logic, and make sure we had enough ingredients to make brimming platefuls of French toast. Hoarding and preparing for disaster became the prevailing activity for many residents of our town.
The first century scholar, Rabbi Hillel, had it right 2,000 years ago, when he advised, “in a place where there are no human beings, strive to be a human” (Pirke Avot). When we are about to face a blizzard, a crisis, a possible catastrophe, something powerful happens to us, and we revert to that squirrel-like quality.
It is so easy to panic, slip into caveman patterns, and show our more aggressive sides. Our Jewish prayers regularly encourage us to try to imitate the attributes we ascribe to a divine Creator. But in cases like these, Hillel, was right: sometimes just trying to be human is the biggest accomplishment of all.