Friday, January 26, 2007

The Right Stuff

Dedicated by an anonymous supporter in memory of Maisha Laibel ben Tilly.

In honor of my Uncle Lowell’s shiva this week, I’m inaugurating the Yiddish of the Week. This is an experimental section, please tell me if you like it, dislike it or are indifferent. It will be followed by a regular Table Talk on the same theme.

anee (“uh-nee”) — a poor person
koptsen — a professional beggar, a shnorrer
ballaboss — homeowner, community member

An anee found a wallet with ninety dollars in it. Also in the wallet was a name and address, and a note: “If found please return – ten dollar reward.”
The anee rushed to the address, a beautiful home, where a servant led him to the ballaboss. The ballaboss thanked him, counted the money and said, “I see you have already removed your ten dollar reward.”
“What? No! Never! I swear I didn’t!”
The ballaboss shook his head, “There were one hundred dollars in the wallet.”
“I swear to you on my mother’s grave!”
But the ballaboss wanted to do the right thing. He called the rabbi and asked him to come over. When the rabbi arrived, each told his side of the story. Then the anee appealed for mercy. “Please Rebbe, don’t punish me for doing a mitzvah!”
But the ballaboss countered, “Rabbi, who are you going to believe, me or that koptsen?
The rabbi stroked his beard and finally said, “I have the solution” and he promptly took the wallet from the ballaboss and handed it to the anee.
“But Rabbi,” protested the ballaboss, how is that fair?
“You said that your wallet definitely had 100 dollars in it. This wallet only has ninety dollars. Therefore it is obviously not your wallet. We shall just have to wait until somebody finds a wallet with 100 dollars in it.

+ + + +

That story leads to a question, another short story, and another question.

The driving question for the table is: What’s the bottom line for you? What’s the most important thing in your life? What are you living for more than anything else?

Here’s Uncle Lowell’s story:

“When I returned from the war in Europe, I was stationed at Ft. Lewis (near Tacoma, Wash). It was fortunate because my dear wife and two year old son whom I’d never seen were both living in Tacoma.

“Come the day of my discharge, I went to the sergeant to get the paperwork and he informed me that according to military rules, I was just one day short of an automatic pay raise. If I would stay in the army just one extra day, my pension would increase by a significant amount every month. I don’t remember exactly how much, maybe thirty or sixty dollars – back then, that was a lot of money, especially for a young man with a family and not even a job to go to.

“But I was so intent on getting out of there and being with my wife and son – and so sick of the army by then - that you couldn’t have paid me enough to stay an extra day. I didn’t give his offer even a moment’s thought. ”

(Did you ever regret not getting the extra money?)

“Not ever. I never looked back. My family was always the bottom line.”

Nice story right?

Only one small problem: It’s not true.

Wait – I don’t mean the story’s not true. As far as I know, the story is 100 percent accurate. What’s not true is the last line. Lowell’s family was not the bottom line. Neither is mine, nor is yours.

How do I know? Because if his family had been the bottom line, he would never have gone off to war in the first place. He would have found some way to get out of the service (he was 25, after all) and not risked his life and stayed with his family.

The reason that he served and risked never seeing his family again is because he knew what we all know: the real bottom line is doing what’s right. Knowing that you did the right thing is a stronger drive even than enjoying your loved ones.

It’s such a powerful drive, in fact, that no matter what we do, we typically rationalize and tell ourselves, “Under the circumstances, it was the right thing to do” or better yet, “There is no absolute right or wrong, it’s a judgment call.” I love that last one because then you can always decide that you’re doing the right thing.

Sadly, many people are only moved to do the right thing out of fear. How often do you drive the speed limit even though other people are driving faster?

Uncle Lowell by his own account enlisted in the army to fight the Nazis. Maybe he thought it was inevitable that he would serve. But that’s still a heck of a lot better than being drafted and dragged kicking and screaming.

Question – who/what are the Nazis/pharaohs to fight these days? How do we define “the right thing” so that we can all start doing it together?

Shabbat Shalom

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