Shortly after Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetzky immigrated to America, a taxi was sent to his house to pick him up. A man who was present boasted to Reb Yaakov about the modern amenities available in America.
“In Europe,” he said, “You say ‘The wagon driver has arrived.’ But here in America we say ‘The taxi has arrived!’”
“That’s the problem,” responded Reb Yaakov.
“What’s the problem?” asked the man, puzzled.
“In Europe we appreciate what people do for us, so we do not say that the wagon has arrived, instead we say that the wagon driver has arrived (דער בעל עגלה איז געקומען), thus showing our appreciation for the driver.
In America you have no appreciation of what is done for you and you think that the taxi arrived by itself. You do not consider that someone has taken the trouble to drive the taxi to your house to take you where you want to go.”
This story happened shortly after Reb Yaakov moved to America in 1937.
Today, in the year 2019, anonymity rules the way in which we spend our money.
Call centres, massive retail chains and online shopping have all served to depersonalise the commercial experience. We do not expect to form any meaningful connection with the person with whom we interact commercially. We will probably never see this person again, we do not know who they are, or where they live, or what concerns they have. Nevertheless we expect to be dealt with smilingly and to receive the best possible level of “customer service”.
In other words, we are being encouraged to form a utilitarian attitude about the people with whom we interact on a commercial basis.
Are you good enough for me?
I was recently surprised to receive an SMS from my bank, asking me to rate the level of “customer experience” I had received when I went to deposit some money at my local branch.
Think about what that means:
- I went to the bank because I wanted to conduct some business.
- The person who served me was as nice as they could possibly be.
- I tried to show my gratitude when they had finished serving me, to the extent that it is possible to show gratitude to someone who is sitting behind bullet-proof plate glass, and with whom I communicated via a microphone and speakers.
- The bank, who is this person’s employer, has asked me for my opinion of the customer service I was given.
The results from this survey will be presented to the bank’s hapless employee by their manager. If the results of the survey are not “up to scratch”, then the employee will be asked to either lift their game or pack their bags.
In other words, I am being asked by my bank to treat the person who served me as a human machine, whose purpose in life is to serve me.
Within this context, if I say “That person is ‘really good’”, that means nothing more than “They managed to please me.”
We are indeed very far removed from the days when the friendly call of “The wagon driver has arrived!” would ring out.
So how can we escape from the corrosive commercialisation of human interaction, towards which attitude we are encouraged by corporate marketing strategies?
Maybe the answer lies in the mishna in Pirkei Avos (4:1) which says:
אֵיזֶהוּ מְכֻבָּד? הַמְכַבֵּד אֶת הַבְּרִיּוֹת, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: (ש”א ב, ל) כִּי מְכַבְּדַי אֲכַבֵּד וּבֹזַי יֵקָלוּ
Who is honoured? He who honours people, as the passuk says, “For I will honour those that honour Me, and those who revile Me will be made light of.”
The passuk which the mishna quotes is intriguingly unconnected to the point which the mishna comes to prove. Whereas the mishna is discussing our obligation to respect other people, the passuk is talking about the reward which awaits someone who respects Hashem.
In addition, the mishna chooses an odd word to refer to “other people”. The word בְּרִיּוֹת literally means “creations”, and not “people”. The mishna could have chosen a more conventional word, such as אחרים – “others”, to refer to those others whom we should treat with respect.
But perhaps therein lies the message of the mishna.
If we respect people for what they are, and for who they are, and we respect them simply because they are the creations of Hashem, and for no other reason, then have we shown true respect. By respecting people for who they are, we reveal Hashem’s glory in this world, because we have said, “Hashem, how great and wonderful is your handiwork.” As reward for showing this respect to Hashem’s world, we ourselves are elevated and ennobled.
However, if we only respect other people for what they have become, for what they do or for what they own, then we have not uncovered Hashem’s glory in this world. Instead we have paid tribute to the artificial social conventions to which we subscribe.
I once heard this point made rather pithily by Rabbi Matisyahu Salomon.
Imagine that two visitors are standing at the back of shul (the synagogue). One visitor is nattily dressed in a pinstripe suit. The other visitor is in a visibly dilapidated condition, with unwashed clothes and a crumpled hat. We walk to the back of the shul, gingerly avoid he with the unkempt visage, and give a hearty shalom aleichem to his well dressed counterpart.
Reb Matisyahu pointed out that in this situation, we should have saved ourselves the bother of walking to the back of the shul. We would have been better off going to the well dressed visitor’s wardrobe and wishing his clothes shalom aleichem, seeing as they are what really piqued our interest.
It takes considerable effort to slow ourselves down to the extent that we can take the time to appreciate the service that has been provided to us, in a modern commercial setting. There are people in the queue behind us, we have a million things to do and we have double parked because there were no free parking spaces.
However, if we do:
- Take a second to focus on the person who has helped us.
- Appreciate that we may never see this person again and that this may be the only chance that we will ever have of showing our appreciation of the service that they have rendered to us.
- Understand that this person is a human who is created in the image of Hashem, and that their worth is far greater than that of “a clerk in a bank”.
Then we can find glimpses of Hashem and of true humanity within our everyday mundane lives.
Pinchos Chalk lives in Melbourne, tries to post a weekly dvar torah here, maintains a blog on inspired living here and has written a book on work-life balance here. He especially appreciates feedback, so if you have any, that’s great!