Shouldering our responsibility

Shouldering our responsibility


Of all the hours spent learning from Torah and Talmud. All the discussions in your local beis medresh, and all of the research of the great scholars such as Rashi, Rambam and Ramban – but maybe it was a man on a New York subway who taught us thoroughly.

As our sage Hillel said: “That which is hateful to you, do not unto another: This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary.”

For those who don’t know, a man named Isaac Theil, 65, who was riding the Brooklyn bound Q train recently, did not flinch for a second when a young black man wearing a hoodie used his shoulder as a pillow for a short snooze.

As is always the case these days, there was someone there who saw in it a photo opportunity, and soon the image of the black youth in the hoodie sleeping on the Jewish man’s shoulder went viral. It’s had millions of likes on Facebook.

“He must have had a long day, let him sleep,” Mr. Theil was quoted in as saying to another subway rider.

Today, when the hoodie has become the symbol of Trayvon Martin’s death in Florida, and of tension between people of different skin colors or backgrounds, Mr. Theil’s patience and compassion was exactly what we needed.

Mr. Theil said he had no hidden agenda a couple of Thursdays ago, when he let Garvey Dutes, a John Jay College student, doze on his shoulder.

Since then, then social media has been buzzing of this simple act of kindness.

I was going to write about the event, picking up the quotes from Tablet and other sources. Use your favorite search engine and you can see the photo and find stories about it all over the social network.

But instead of calling the requisite social commentators to ask about the meaning of Mr. Theil’s actions, I decided instead to take this man’s good deed to the what I call the front lines.

In this case, that is a group of teens I meet with at a Baltimore area congregation. We meet for what is called “Emet,” the Hebrew word for truth. I really don’t teach these students; instead, I often bring controversy to them and we talk about the appropriate responses to it.

We’ve spoken to one another over the years in this class about many issues. Before last year’s referendums, we debated the needed for a marriage equality act. We took both the idea that marriage should always be between a man and a woman and the idea that it should be available to anyone couple very seriously.

We talked about the impact of casino gambling, considering the collateral damage of betting, such as addiction and ruined lives.

Should anyone question Israel’s right to attack Iran and destroy its nuclear capability?

Is the Arab spring really doing what it was supposed to do in the Middle East?

Obamacare, the furloughing of federal workers, the mass shootings in schools, movie theaters and shopping centers that are making us all numb. We talk about all of it.

There were students in the class who were taken aback by Isaac Theil’s decision to allow a strange man to sleep on his shoulder.

What stunned me the most were the words of one of my high school seniors, a girl who I have had in class for four years. She would tell you herself that she’s not necessarily the most religious teen on the planet. And there have been times when she’d rather text on her phone than listen to me go on and on about terrorism or religious continuity.

Yet when she gets going about a topic, she gets going about the topic.

This time, though, Dani’s quiet voice is what stunned us all. Without needing to shout, she simply asked the question.

“Why?” she asked

“Why what?, a classmate responded.

“Why should this be such a big deal that it would go viral?” Dani wanted to know. “I mean isn’t this the way we are supposed to be to each other?”

Question answered.

When I asked her classmates what they would do if a young African American man in a hoodie rested his head on their shoulder, none of them felt comfortable enough to say yes they would let him.

A couple joked that they wouldn’t let anyone rest their heads on their shoulders.

Mr. Theil said he didn’t give it a “second thought.”

Mr. Theil taught us what Hillel also said after talking about treating one’s neighbor as one would expect to be treated. “All the rest is commentary.”

In performing an act of kindness Mr. Theil carried the full spiritual weight of a loving, caring Judaism on his shoulder. We should all have the opportunity to do the same.

You’ll never know when someone will seek comfort there.

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