Friday, May 7, 2010

Vendor vs. Vendor


I'm not sure exactly what this says about me as a person - but I have been captivated by the news stories coming out of New York City in the last week - in response to the attempted act of terrorism in Times Square last Saturday night. 

Why has the story interested me so much?  Maybe it's because I've spent plenty of time in Times Square during different points in my life (especially the seasonal trips to the city that my family made while I was growing up in New Jersey).  Maybe it's out of concern that this could have been (God forbid) another 9/11?  I don't know...But for whatever reason, I have been staying tuned.

Obviously this stuff is serious - even the allegation of suspected Islamic extremists looking to attack of American citizens is deeply disconcerting.

But you'll forgive me, because I am naturally inclined - after spending so much time reading about all of the serious stuff associated with something like this - to look for the "lighter side" of this story.

I found it a few days ago, when I stumbled upon this blog page from the New York Times.  Ah....only in New York.  :o)

If you've been following along with the news reports since last weekend, you might have heard that the police were able to evacuate the area, and thereby prevent mass casualties, thanks to the tip of one of the street vendors who was manning his post, and happened to notice suspicious smoke coming out of a nearby vehicle.

Awesome.  A hero in the making.  Joe Schmo NY street vendor saves day by doing his part to tell police about a suspicious object.

Except that - according to the aforementioned Times blog - it may not have been quite that simple!

It seems that there is some dispute as to who the FIRST street vendor was who alerted police about the suspicious vehicle.

Let me just say: this was a big enough situation that it seems obvious to me that there is room enough for two heroes here.  That's the position that Mayor Bloomberg and President Obama have taken - in attempting to honor both vendors (injured Vietnam veterans, incidentally) for their courage and civic-mindedness.

Here is Lance Orton, one of the vendors, telling about his experience:

What really caught my attention about this minor news story was the "trash talking" that Mr. Orton did about the other vendor, Duane Jackson.  Of Mr. Jackson, Mr. Orton said: "He was across the street, with his arms folded, looking around, while we were doing what we did. [...] There can't be two heroes.  I don't want anyone riding on my story."

Mr. Orton's implication is that Mr. Jackson is lying about his role in the events of last Saturday.  That's a serious charge considering the events of the week: a concerted attempt by one of the vendors to besmirch the character/reputation of the other.

I, myself, am at a loss of words to describe this argument.

Thankfully, our tradition has a lot to say about it.  And it all stems from this week's Torah portion, Parshat Behar-Bechukotai

In the midst of the Torah's discussion about the rituals of shmitta (letting the land rest every seven years) and yovel (forgiving loans every 50th jubilee year), our text contains the following:

When you sell property to your neighbor, or buy any from your neighbor, you shall not wrong one another. […] Do not wrong one another, but fear your God; for I, the Lord, am your God.  (Lev. 25:14,17)

Twice the Torah repeats the commandment that we shall not "wrong one another."  Why twice?  Surely both instances cannot refer to the same kind of 'wronging.'  Our rabbis teach us that every word in the Torah MATTERS, and has something unique to teach us.  Thus it must be that the text refers to two different kinds of wronging: that of the economic variety (associated with verse 14) and that of the gossipy variety (verse 17).

Interestingly, both come into play with our situation of the vendors.  There are economic implications if people presume that such and such vendor was the hero (people are more likely to want to stop and shop there, get their picture taken with that person, etc.) and there are economic implications if one of the vendors turns out to be a fraud (God forbid) - because then one would presume that shoppers in the know would avoid spending money there.

Of course, the Talmud teaches us that the latter 'wronging' - where we spread false information about another - is even worse.  The loss of reputation, or shame, that we cause cannot be replaced in the same way that money can.  Thus the Talmud goes so far as to say that a person who embarrasses another in public is like the worst kind of murderer, who may never be forgiven for their sin.  (Yikes!)

There are other theological ramifications to Vendorgate (yes, that's my pathetic little name for this incident), which we'll have the chance to explore in greater depth tomorrow at our Shabbat morning service. 

In the meantime, here are some questions for you to consider:
  •  Do you agree with the significance that Judaism attaches to the importance of never embarrassing another in public?
  • Have you ever (unwittingly) been guilty of embarrassing another?  Did you try to repent (or make up) for the act?  Is that kind of repentance ever fully possible?
  • What's up with Lance Orton and Duane Jackson?  Are they both legit American heroes (well...they already are for their service in Vietnam, but in terms of the incident in NY)?  Or is one of them trying to pull a fast one on the other (and the rest of us)?
As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts about this - either publicly here on the blog, or privately.

Shabbat Shalom.

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