As I sit down to write, my mind is flooded with the tragedy that occurred on Lag BaOmer in Meron, Israel. During a climatic and momentous celebration marking the time that Rabbi Akiva sought out Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and a few other students to rebuild the Torah legacy after his 24,000 students perished, the Jewish nation suffered yet another devastating tragedy. This Lag BaOmer event was particularly anticipated and cherished in Israel because it was a significant gathering of tens of thousands of people that testified to our overcoming the threat of the coronavirus that trapped people inside during many months of lockdown. We felt victorious, and yet now, utterly defeated.
We are still in the grip of this unspeakable tragedy, as there are many families who are suffering from the loss of their dear loved ones, people who are fighting for their lives in hospitals, and others who are walking around in a daze due to the trauma of this experience. Many of us have a direct connection to someone who was affected by the tragedy. In reality, when the Jewish people endure a tragedy of such monumental proportions, we are all affected; we are all mourning.
One way to deal with the shock, confusion, and unanswerable questions, is to turn a feeling of helplessness into hopefulness. As I search for a way to heal, to move forward, and to grow from these experiences, I ask myself what message we can internalize to produce something positive and tangible in the wake of these tragedies.
Thinking about the way the tragedy occurred, it is striking how similar in some ways it was to the experience of the coronavirus. The coronavirus most significantly attacked people’s lungs and diminished their ability to breathe. So too, in this tragedy, people were crushed together and prevented from breathing. During the peak of the coronavirus threat, we were advised to spread apart and give everyone a lot of personal space. So too, this tragedy unfolded due to a lack of sufficient personal space.
One of the ideas that comes to mind as a way to spread light in the face of this darkness, is for us to strive to be more mindful of other people around us and to give other people more space. This includes holding back and allowing others to go before us, being more sensitive to other people, thinking of and understanding other people’s needs, and putting their needs before our own. Here are three steps we can take to put this positive, proactive, and prosocial practice into action:
1. Look out for and notice other people’s needs
Sometimes we are preoccupied with our own needs and we do not look beyond ourselves to identify the needs of others. This can happen in the smallest of ways, like our cutting through a line at a store or when exiting a highway. When I do things like that, I rationalize to myself that “right now, my need is very pressing. It means a lot to me to save the time, and it is not such a big deal.” That short-term thinking affects other people and affects me. It bothers the other people who are in line. More significantly, it desensitizes everyone involved from thinking about other people and creates a culture of indifference to the needs of others. The first step to our improvement is to take a step back and consider the other people around us. Ask yourself: “What does the other person need right now?”
2. Put other people’s needs before our own
Even if we become more aware of what other people need, it can still be challenging to put that knowledge into practice. We may simply feel too overwhelmed. On a deeper level, we may feel we are entitled to have our own needs met first. If we feel this way, it is likely that we are not selfish people on the whole. We might usually act considerately and may even do generous acts for other people. We just want to take care of ourselves at that time.
The second step to improvement involves foregoing our right to get what we want, or even what we deserve, and hold ourselves back to make room for someone else – for someone else’s need. This is important in any relationship. There can be different dynamics and situations in each relationship that can make this step more or less challenging.
A concrete way of practicing this step of putting other people’s needs before our own is within our reach. We can make the effort to look people in the eye and smile at them. I know I sometimes forget to smile at my own wonderful spouse when he walks through our front door. I might be distracted by taking care of something, have had a tiring day, or just am not in the mood to smile. A smile counteracts the forces that hold us back from putting other people’s needs before our own. A smile, especially with eye contact, sends a message to the other person: “You matter to me. I want you to feel good.” It sends a message of respect. A smile creates a culture that lifts the spirits of everyone involved. It positively affects you and the beneficiary of your smile. Smiling at others is one way to put other people’s needs before your own.
3. Apologize when we wrong someone
A third aspect of giving others space might be the most difficult step of all. Usually, when I do something wrong to someone else, I imagine to myself that I was not entirely at fault. I might go so far as to think that it was the other person’s fault for motivating me to wrong them. Does that sound familiar? For example, if I get upset at someone and speak to that person in a less-than-gentle manner, it is presumably because that person disappointed me. Why should I need to be the one to apologize?
While there are many contributing aspects to any dynamic or situation, there is usually room for us to apologize, too. Even when another person acts in a way to disappoint me, I can focus on what is within my own control to improve our relationship. Going forward, I am going to make more of an effort to apologize to others when I act in a way that is less than my best self (even if they wronged me first!). I might say, “I am sorry that I acted that way.” I could leave it at that or I can add, “I was upset that you did ____, and I still should not have acted that way.”
Apologizing is another way to think of other people’s needs and to put their needs before your own. When we apologize, we demonstrate that the other person’s feelings are important to us, that we are willing to put our own feelings aside to make room to feel the feelings of the other person, and that we want the other person to feel better.
Reflecting on these prosocial, positive ways to relate to other people and resolving to improve my relationships gives me hope and joy in the face of this communal tragedy. Following in the footsteps of Rabbi Akiva, I hope that we can each take steps to kindle a flame of love for others that will grow into a brilliant and brighter future.