One of my favorite Hasidic tales teaches us a lesson we can all stand to learn at this fraught moment in the life of our republic.
It tells of the great Baal Shem Tov, Hasidism’s founding father, sitting in a room and studying Torah with his disciples. The men are all lost in the passion of their devotion, so at first they don’t even hear the gentle rapping on the shutters. But a minute or two goes by, and the knocking grows louder and more persistent, so, finally, one of the students gets up and opens the window.
Outside stands an old man dressed in rags. His hair is matted, his beard scraggly. He looks unwashed, and he’s pushing a cart that looks as worn out as he does and is stuffed with trinkets, ripped up pillows, and broken bits of furniture. In his hand, he’s holding a rusting toolbox.
“Excuse me for interrupting,” says the man, “but I’m a traveling handyman and I could really use a bit of work. Do you have anything that needs fixing, maybe?”
The students, annoyed by the interruption, furiously shake their heads. A few of them impatiently shout that they’ve nothing in need of repair, eager for the old man to go away and for the lesson with the great rabbi to resume. But the handyman is persistent.
“Nothing to repair, really?” He asks. “Not a loose hinge on a door, or a cracked window, or a frayed rug?”
The students, growing increasingly impatient, again say no, and one of them rushes to the window and closes the shutters. Everyone then sits perfectly still and silent, waiting for the master to speak. But the Baal Shem Tov says nothing for several long minutes. When he finally addresses his students, his voice is quivering.
“Think,” he tells them, “about what that poor handyman just taught all of you. You are all such smart and attentive students, yet you failed to see the most obvious thing of all. None of us is in perfect condition. All of us can use some mending and some healing. But if we refuse to search within our hearts, if we slam the shutters when the world comes knocking and reminds us to carry on with our repairs, we’ll never get better.”
The Baal Shem Tov might as well have been speaking to all of us. Like his diligent but oblivious students, we spend our days poring over our own version of the sacred scrolls. We read the news obsessively, debate it furiously, fume about it in person or in the company of friends, and refuse to admit that while we spend so much time and energy parsing what we cannot change, we too often fail to step up and change the things we can.
The Supreme Court, tariffs, immigration reform, the genocide in Syria: There’s little we can do about any of these. But there’s a lot we can do about the elderly man living by himself down the hall, or about the school up the block that can’t really afford new books, or about the person in our community who has some real questions she’d like to ask without being accused of being either a bigot or a fool.
None of these is extraordinary. None makes for heart-stopping media-ready images, and none would get 500 of your closest friends to take to Facebook and add their own breathless commentary. But these small and ongoing repairs are how you build a community, and a community is what you need if you’re to live the kind of life worth living.
To make sure we abide by this insight, religion gives us rules to follow. It knows that the big stories that the holy books tell us are as easy to love as they are to misinterpret. We can fret about the wars and the oaths and the angels all we like, just as long as we also follow the strictures that command us to respect our elders, feed the poor, and remember the neediest.
Having shed the inconveniences of our old orthodoxies, we moderns are left with nothing but titillating stories to excite us. We quibble about them—on social media, at dinner parties, at the office—because quibbling is comfortable and demands little. We’d much rather tell ourselves that all hope is lost because a person we dislike is president than look at what can and must be fixed all around us.
If I needed a reminder of that sad fact, I received it last Saturday. I was out walking with my family on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, a neighborhood known for its strong political sentiments. On almost every block, I could see or hear someone expressing their outrage about our fragile union, some in heated conversation and others by wearing a T-shirt announcing their dislikes. Passing one street corner, I saw a young woman sitting on the sidewalk, looking distressed. We walked over to her, and learned that she’d been out walking in the sun, and was likely exhausted and heat-stricken. One of us ran into a restaurant nearby and got a tall glass of cold water; the other called an ambulance. Before too long, the woman was cared for, rested, and ready to go on with her day. Before we parted ways, she thanked us and told us that she’d asked a few people for help before collapsing, but none bothered to stop, listen, and lend a hand.
I will be thinking of that woman next time I shout at the TV or slam my fist on the breakfast table when confronted by an article that upsets me in the morning paper. And I’ll remind myself that my outrage is impotent: There’s very little I can do to address the world’s greatest tragedies. But there’s much I can do to grow into the sort of person who is mindful of everything that yet needs repair, and much all around me that I can yet help fix. There’s no better, or other, path forward.
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