Tuesday, May 18, 2010

“I’m After You”

I was standing in the grocery store yesterday evening; check out lines overflowing into the overcrowded aisles. On the eve of Shavuot, grocery stores and parking lots were packed as people were going to do their holiday shopping. I went in for one strategic purchase, Ben & Jerry's ice cream to use for dessert, the holiday in which Jews worldwide mark the giving of the Torah and, as custom dictates, eat dairy foods. Each of our holidays involves different customs and traditions regarding food: on some we eat fried foods, others we eat unleavened bread, and on Shavuot it’s dairy. Each carries with it its own tastes, and health consequences. All I know is that while there is a required amount of matza to eat during Passover, it’s a good thing that there's no comparable required amount of jelly donuts or latkes to eat during Chanukah, or cheesecake and blintzes for Shavuot. Though in the end, what’s the major difference between clogging one’s arteries and one’s intestines? But I digress. Two nights ago, I ran in to a different grocery store to attempt the same purchase of ice cream, but the lines were so long and the temperature so hot that I literally left. Even the express lane was so long that, had I waited, the ice cream would have been flavored milk by the time I paid for it. Like a mirage in the desert, the shortest of the express lanes for the check out last night looked too good to be true. It only took me 30 seconds to walk into the store and pick out my six pints of Ben & Jerry’s. The check out line was shorter than that of my attempted purchase the night before, and the weather cooler, so I was prepared to gamble that my ice cream might still have some ice to it. I took my place in line. No sooner than I had stepped foot across the invisible threshold that identified me as being in line as compared to just standing near the line then a woman appeared from behind and said, "If you're last, I'm after you." She left her shopping cart parked perpendicular to the line, leaving me to hold her space behind me, and disappeared as fast as she had appeared. The truth is this is very common in Israel. Whether in a grocery store, bank, or other place that one expects to be standing in line, as if a miracle from God Himself, you can find yourself standing in line quietly, patiently, and creeping ever closer to the end when, out of nowhere, someone will appear and announce the corollary to "I'm after you." "I was here." Sometimes, just as you're recovering from the mild shock of adding five minutes to your wait, one or two other people will appear, uttering the same vulgarity, "I was here." Sometimes these situations become tense, if not an outright argument. Even the sophisticated post office branches that have a number system are not immune from the "I was here" phenomena, nor from the fighting and bickering, the bright side of which does provide a certain amount of entertainment that distracts from the waiting time. Culturally, I am not there yet. But I am getting closer. Last week my wife and I ran into a grocery store (site of the first evening’s attempt this week) to pick up a few things. 30 minutes later, we found ourselves on line behind someone whose cart was full, but most of the bottom of the cart contained six packs of soft drinks, meaning that the number of items in his cart was less, so we thought we had picked our line well strategically. As soon as we dug in for the wait, I said to my wife that we should have come in, parked the cart on line somewhere, split up the list, and dodged back and forth filling the cart before it was our turn to pay. Part of me really regretted not having done so, but part of me could not imagine the unadulterated chutzpah this would have required. Very Israeli. Just not very me. Yet. So last night no sooner than I had lost the invisible woman "on line" behind me, another man appeared. "Is this cart yours?" he asked, pointing to her cart? "No," I replied, "it’s the lady's who just put it there and said she was after me." "OK then. I'm after her," and he proceeded to rearrange his cart, and hers, and then to "pick up one thing" he forgot. He returned just as I was putting the ice cream, still frozen, on the conveyor belt to pay. The lady "behind me" was nowhere to be seen. I did not catch the full interaction but noticed him bickering with the woman who had appeared BEHIND HIM over whether it was OK for him to cut in front of the lady "behind me." As I was bagging my purchase and just trying to get out before someone appeared in front of me, uttering that they were already there, I had a strange thought occurred, unique to being in Israel and shopping for Shavuot. It’s said that when the Jewish people stood together at Sinai to receive the Torah, we stood as one. So I couldn’t help but wonder if in fact two million people really stood there so patiently and happily, or if the chromosome that makes us culturally accepting of people appearing in line and saying, “I'm after you," or worse, "I was here," is a trait we carry from Sinai. As important as receiving the Torah is/was, and as we spiritually reenact receiving it again each Shavuot, I wonder if there weren’t just a few who stood at Sinai and told his or her neighbor, "just a minute. I forgot something. I’ll be right back. I'M AFTER YOU." Were there those who, just as the big moment was to take place, appeared out of nowhere and said "I was here." And when this happened, did we stand there and let it pass, partly in distain for the chutzpa and partly in envy that we didn’t think on it, and were there people behind us who would care to argue about the place of the person who was "already there" not being saved as if it were a precious gem. Long before our Sage Hillel uttered "If I am not for myself, who will be for me?" could it be that the Jewish people really did, and still do, care for and protect one another, whether waiting patiently at Sinai or even buying ice cream in a Jerusalem grocery store today. As much as the "I'm after you" cultural mutation is distinctly Israeli, maybe it’s not all bad. Maybe, especially as we approach Shavuot and the reenactment of the receiving the Torah, it gives sufficient pause to reflect on how we interact and behave toward our neighbor. Even if we did not indeed wait patiently at Sinai, together as one, if there were some who had other things to do and cut in and out of line, it is a nice idea that once in a while we put our bickering aside and do stand together, united as one. A value that comes from the Torah itself. May we have a festive and joyous Shavuot and may this one lesson remind us that a little patience is a virtue. Unless of course you're buying expensive ice cream that is going to melt.