I live in a neighborhood that is so new, all the houses haven’t been built yet. There used to be an empty lot next to my house, but a new home now is under construction.
Thursday morning I was wakened at 6:42 am by roaring engines and loud voices, and I promptly texted the builder (who built my house and has become a friend) the following: “Hey! Somebody owes me 18 minutes of sleep!” Because they’re not supposed to start work until 7:00.
I’ve been thinking about those 18 minutes. In Judaism, the word “life” has the numeric value of 18. The significance of the number was not lost on me, and I’ve been ruminating on the fact that my 18 minutes of sleep are irretrievably gone. In a very real sense, 18 minutes of my life was lost – but not because of construction noise. Rather, because I spent the time being frustrated and ticked off. No one stole them from me but myself.
I have learned several valuable lessons such as this one since construction began two weeks ago, and I’d like to share a couple of them with you.
Lesson #1 – Sadly, kindness is not universal. The building process started when 8 or 10 men showed up one morning and started digging. It was very hot and there is absolutely no shade. The construction site is mere feet away from my house, and my hose spigot is right there.
After thinking about it for a while, I made a sign in Spanish and English that says “please help yourself to water,” taped it to the side of my house, hung up a bag with plastic cups, and put out a small trash can for discarded cups.
That afternoon I saw Wade, the builder, and asked if he’d seen my sign. “No,” he replied. “Does it say ‘private property?’ That’s what most people do.”
I find that shocking. I don’t expect that everyone go to the lengths that I did. But why would anyone care if the workers drank some water? I cannot imagine that these men will drink enough to affect my water bill.
I already had the cups. It takes less than a minute each evening to empty the trash and put out new cups. The hardest part was spending half an hour figuring out how to write my message in Spanish.
The Talmud teaches, “The world stands on three things, Torah, service to God, and acts of loving kindness.” If we believe that each person is made in the image of God, then two of those three things require that we be kind to one another. And so, by the way, does the Torah.
Lesson #2. Kindness can come from unexpected quarters. Earlier this week I stopped to chat with two men working on the water line for the new house. They had had to dig up a rhododendron that the landscaping company planted too close to the water main. I looked at the bush lying on the ground, and said, “I think I’ll replant it in my backyard and see if it lives.”
One of the guys said they’d be happy to help and they immediately picked up the plant, grabbed their shovels, and headed around back with me in tow.
They helped me choose the spot, dug a hole, got dirt from the construction site to pack around the roots, hammered a stake into the ground, and lovingly tied the stake to the bush. They put time and caring into the project, at the end of a long hot day.
They didn’t have to do this for me. They wanted to. Our Torah teaches that we should love our neighbor as ourselves. The question often arises, who is our neighbor? In this case it was just a woman with an uprooted rhododendron.
Lesson #3. It’s a good thing when everyone involved feels good. Jewish tradition has an unexpected attitude towards acts of loving kindness. The Hebrew phrase is gemilut chasadim. Chasadim is from the word chesed, which we know is kindness. But the word gemilut specifically means reciprocal acts, things done in the context of a relationship, with what Rabbi Sara Paasche-Orlow calls “a built-in notion of benefit or compensation in return for the act.”
In other words, we don’t have to think that we shouldn’t get something out of helping another. A feeling of satisfaction is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s good. It’s important to understand that in doing a kindness, we should feel OK about getting something out of it for ourselves. The result is that we’re more likely to do a good deed the next time we have a chance.
In the case of my two friends, they were glad to rescue the plant that they had been forced to cut down. They felt good about themselves. They felt good about helping me. Everybody walked away happy.
Lesson #4. The space between life and death is miniscule. Having my phone in hand at 6:42 am and realizing that I was now wide awake, I decided to look at the headlines, where I learned that five people had died from a rare illness carried by mosquitos, more people had died from vaping, and dozens died in a Taliban bombing in Afghanistan. Depressed, I clicked over to Facebook. There I learned that one friend’s brother had died unexpectedly, and another friend’s sister.
I woke up yesterday morning, and other people didn’t. I don’t know when that day will come for me. But I do know that my time here on earth is precious.
I will freely admit that I was seriously annoyed when the noise started so early. That’s OK. It was a reasonable reaction. What wasn’t reasonable was to stay annoyed. There were much more valuable things to do with the 18 minute extension of my day.
Next time the construction workers wake me up, and I’m pretty certain there will be a next time, I hope that I have the presence of mind to remember his words.
This is the sermon that I gave over at Congregation Kol HaNeshama this Shabbat.
Maureen Binderman said:
Very thought-provoking and true, Rabbi! Thank you for making us THINK!
Elliana Goldberg said:
Beautiful. You walk the walk.
Barbara Shagrin said:
Beautiful. Very touching. I believe in the same.
SRQ Jew said:
Thank you Barbara!