By Harriet P. Gross
One of my Sunday pleasures is reading a triple dose of newspaper advice columns along with my morning coffee. But on a recent week, I noticed with some surprise that, while the three advisors were answering three very different questions, the problems being presented were basically the same.
First: Dear Abby, aka Pauline Phillips, heard from a woman who said her out-of-state brother-in-law stayed overnight fairly frequently in her family home. Each time he arrived, he insisted on rearranging the guest room furniture because he likes to sleep facing north, and the bed there faces west.
Second: Carolyn Hax replied to a woman whose husband recently bought a houseboat for family fun outings, and invited his stepdaughter, her husband and their teenage children along for the very first one. But the stepdaughter, age 45, appeared in an incredibly skimpy bikini and spent most of the time snuggling in her husband’s lap, while the couple’s kids couldn’t take their eyes off the action. When the houseboat owner asked her to please cover up next time, the stepdaughter’s husband said nobody had the right to tell his wife how to dress, and they wouldn’t be sailing with him anymore.
Third: Judith Martin, aka Miss Manners, advised a woman whose neighbors greeted her recent move-in with the news that they’d be over to pick the limes from her tree. Also, because they lived in a high-risk hurricane area and she had an emergency generator, the neighbors added that they’d be over whenever they lost power and would stay until it was restored.
Different situations, but still all alike: How politely accepting must one be with family members and neighbors who act contrary to your standards on your own property, or who invade your property altogether? How do you set boundaries in these situations?
The columnists were quite gentle in their responses, which seemed to me a very Christian “turn the other cheek” — even from Abby, who is Jewish. So, wondering what Judaism might advise in situations like these, I spent some time with Rabbi Reuven Bulka’s commentary on Pirke Avot, entitled “Chapters of the Sages,” and Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s “Jewish Wisdom,” which also draws heavily on the ethics of our fathers. And here’s some of what I learned:
Rabbi Akiba said loving your neighbor as yourself, the great commandment in Leviticus, is the major principle of the entire Torah. And there’s an echo of Abraham’s open tent in the injunction of Yose, son of Yochanan of Jerusalem: “Let your house be open wide. Let the poor be members of your household.”
But Yose does not say to also welcome the demanding, the rude, the overbearing; in fact, he repeats the wisdom of Nittai of Arbel, who urges us to “Keep far away from a bad neighbor.” (Which of course may be impossible when you live in a cul-de-sac with lime-stealers next door, who come off as even worse than this one, cited by Rabbi Shimon: “The wicked person borrows and never repays.” Perhaps Shimon would have agreed with Miss Manners, who suggested her correspondent might ask the pilfering neighbors what they intend to give in return for the limes they threaten to take, or if they’ll provide water and food for electrical emergencies.)
Rabbi Yannai must have been shaking his head when he said, “It is not within our grasp to explain the tranquility of the wicked, or the suffering of the righteous,” which aptly fits the case of the north-facing guest and his furniture-moving hostess. But he does give us some definitions: “A person who says ‘What is mine is yours, and what is yours is yours’ is pious; one who says ‘What is yours is mine and what is mine is mine’ is wicked.” Also wicked is “a person who is easy to provoke and difficult to pacify,” which perfectly describes the husband of the barely-clad bikini aficionada.
I’ve decided to start reading Pirke Avot now, along with those more modern advice-givers, as I sip my Sunday morning coffee.