Inspiration comes from strange places. A few weeks ago, I saw a commercial on television that sparked my interest. The ad was for an insurance company whose name I forget. I guess it was not that effective from a sales standpoint. But for inspiration, this commercial was pretty good.
First you see a man holding open a door for a woman with a baby carriage. And another woman was watching this act of kindness from the street. The second woman kept walking along. A moment later, she saw a fish vendor under a stack of boxes. One of them was about to fall on the fish guy, so she pushed him out of the way. A second good deed. And a man in a car was watching the woman who pushed the fish vendor. So he decided to let another car into his lane. On and on it went, as the good deeds continued to spread.
Here is the commercial. Press play to view it. Thanks to Andrew for sending this link to me!
The commercial reminded me of a famous Jewish teaching: mitzvah goreret mitzvah: “One good deed leads to another.” But there is a more subtle lesson here as well, a lesson about setting examples. The good deeds spread not by force or by one person telling another. They caught on by example. When the man in the car saw how the woman helped the fish vendor, he was inspired to do his own good deed.
In my own life, I had many people who set good examples for me, including my father. I realize now that I remember more of what my dad did than what he said. One thing about my father is that he is always a good tipper. When we would go out to eat in a restaurant, he would consistently leave over 20%. I watched it happen over and over again for years. When I asked him why, he replied that the waiters and bus-boys worked hard for very little money. And they deserved at least a bit of appreciation from someone. To this day, the example he set for me remains strong. Whenever I pay the bill at a restaurant, I think of him and remember not to be too cheap!
Of course, the power of setting examples cuts both ways. The Rabbis taught: “One good deed leads to another.” They also said: aveirah goreret aveirah: “One transgression leads to another.” When we see others doing something wrong, it becomes just slightly easier to bend or break the rules ourselves. I watch it happen all the time when I drive on the highway. In New York, we are famous for being maniacs behind the wheel, especially on the Long Island Expressway, the LIE. When I first started driving on the LIE, I was pretty safe. I would not cut people off that much and I was patient. Then I started seeing how everyone else drives. And slowly but surely, my safe driving began to deteriorate. I do my best to not cut others off, but it’s hard when I witness what is going on around me.
Perhaps it is these kind of negative examples that when compounded make a whole society malfunction. And that reminds me of the biblical story of Noah and the Ark. At the time of Noah, the people were corrupt and lawless. Maybe it began with just a few bad deeds that others witnessed and said: that’s no big deal. And from there it began to spread. The next thing you knew, the whole earth was filled with lawlessness. And then the rains came and flooded the entire world.
Our deeds in this world are powerful. They affect us. But they also set an example for others. We human beings are astute observers. We are always paying attention to what others are doing. And so let us watch our deeds carefully. Let us be like the woman who pushed the fish vendor out of the way of the falling box. That way, anyone who is watching us, will only learn how to be a mensch, an upright person.