Our Brother’s Keeper (2001)

By vigilantly removing or revealing hidden dangers, we can spare others embarrassment, loss, harm, or death. What stops us?

THE WHITE “landing lights” by Metro Center’s northbound track are blinking; in a minute, I and my fellow train warriors will be jostling onto the Red Line to Shady Grove.

Well, not all of us. It’s rush hour, when alternate trains will end four stations shy. Like the train pulling in, marked “Grosvenor.”

Grosvenor Metro sign; photo 2006 by Ben Schumin (Creative Commons)

Grosvenor Metro sign; photo 2006 by Ben Schumin (Creative Commons)

A blind man taps his white cane as he inches into the queue. What if he needs the Shady Grove? “Sir with the cane,” I say, “this train ends at Grosvenor.”

“It does? Thanks,” he says. “I’ll wait for the next.”

“You shall not place a stumbling block before the blind,” enjoins Leviticus 19:14. This prohibition, the Talmud explains, must be obeyed proactively: Remove an obstacle that threatens harm to others.

Yet even in its “thou shalt” sense, as commandments go 19:14 is easy to obey. It is, moreover, immensely rewarding: Few good deeds bring so much good for so little deed. 

Why, then, were dozens of bystanders ready to let a blind man stumble onto the wrong train? Why, after stumbling over a danger ourselves, do we leave the stumbling block in place, certain to ensnare others? 

Why not do the right thing, when the right thing asks so little?

The scope of Leviticus 19:14 is as varied as our routines. To take it seriously, we must remove—or at least, bring to light—any obstacle, however intimate or mundane, that threatens to cause the unwary to suffer inconvenience, shame, loss, harm, or death.

If you wish to adopt verse 14, here are 10 ways.

"out of order" handmade sign

"out of order" handmade sign

1. Warn others of a coin-eating vending machine.

The payphone won’t return a dial tone…or your coins. Leviticus 19:14: “Post an OUT OF ORDER note.” No time? Stuff a wad of paper in the slot. 

2. Post a Beware sign on a fouled toilet.

Rushing into a public bathroom stall, you’re greeted by a backed-up toilet, its murky waters brimming with Number 2. As you retreat in disgust, sayeth Leviticus 19:14, “Tear off two lengths of toilet paper, close the door, and drape an X over the door.” 

a broken toilet stall indicated by a handmade sign reading "Out of Order (Trust Us)."

a broken toilet stall indicated by a handmade sign reading "Out of Order (Trust Us)."

3. Provide all contact and event data in a mailing.

"opening February 30"

"opening February 30"

A PTA newsletter instructs you to call the school but provides no phone number. A countywide handout invites you to a school meeting but provides no street address. A card invites you to a dinner on the 24th, but makes you and the other 32 invitees look up the day. Don’t get me started on dates that don’t match the days.

4. Inform someone if their grooming needs attention.

from a 1965 ad by Talon zippers (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oQF-HRUDyYc)

from a 1965 ad by Talon zippers (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oQF-HRUDyYc)

Repeat after me: “Sir, your fly is open / your shirttail is out.” “Madam, your slip is showing.” “Excuse me, but you appear to have sat in something.” Rude? Ask yourself: How do you feel when you discover that everyone has been letting you walk around with pepperoni pizza on your butt?

My wife and I were once sitting across from a salesman. As a glob of snot dangled from his nose, we said nothing. When a passing colleague alerted him, the salesman turned to us and asked, “Why didn’t you tell me?”

5. Provide callers the phone number they’ve tried to reach.

Woe to the jerk who won’t when I call:

(party at the other end) “Drew’s Dry Cleaning.”

(me) “Oh, sorry—this isn’t Bob’s Bowling?”

“It used to be, but we have their number now.”

excerpted from a cartoon by Patrick Garvin (http://patrickgarvin.com/blog/?p=167)

excerpted from a cartoon by Patrick Garvin (http://patrickgarvin.com/blog/?p=167)

“I see. Can you tell me Bob’s new number?” 

“I’m sorry, sir, I don’t have it.”

“I’ll bet you get lots of calls for Bob’s Bowling.”

“Yes, sir, at least six a day.”

“Tell you what. I’ll call Information and get Bob’s new number. If I give it to you, will you keep it by your phone so no one else will have to waste minutes?”

“Sir, I don’t have time to give out numbers all day.”

“In the time it took to tell me you can’t, you could have given me the number and earned goodwill.”

6. Alert others when the thing they await is not available.

Has the checkout clerk told you you’re the last customer she’ll take? 19:14: “Inform those queuing up behind you.” Are you pulling out of the school parking lot because all spaces are taken? 19:14: “Wave off drivers who are about to repeat your mistake.”

flashing of headlights

flashing of headlights

7. Alert approaching drivers that their headlights are off.

A simple ON–OFF of your own lights will do. And for advanced Leviticans…

8. Let a driver know if a taillight or brake light is out.

brake light out

brake light out

Does Leviticus 19:14 suggest we should bolt out of our car, sprint to the driver ahead of us at a red light, and shout, “Your brake light is out”? Yes. Roll down our window and holler to the driver stopped beside us? Ditto. Follow her minivan into the mall parking lot to tell her? You bet your life. How else can she know?

9. Warn drivers of hazards ahead.

"danger ahead" sign

"danger ahead" sign

Emerging from a bend, you pass a bicyclist cruising the other way. Seconds later, a red sports coupe is swiftly approaching. Leviticus 19:14: “Flash your brights twice!” Experienced drivers will understand that around the bend lurks a cop, a deer, a slow-moving vehicle, or an obstacle. Which brings us to…

10. Remove obstacles from a path.

a boulder in the road

a boulder in the road

Who hasn’t swerved to avert a box that’s tumbled from a truckbed? Leviticus 19:14: “Park your car, wait for traffic to clear, dash out, and pull the box out of harm’s way.” Joggers, walkers, cyclists, this one’s for you. And while you’re at it, kick aside the broken Coors bottle on that sidewalk or driveway.

a mattress in the road

a mattress in the road

One night, a motorist called to reported a mattress in the road. “I’m sorry,” droned the 911 operator, “we don’t consider that an emergency.” He explained: Drivers are swerving out of its way. Someone’s going to get killed.” But the operator kept quoting the code, chapter and verse. “Fine,” said the exasperated caller, “but if someone dies, it’ll be on your head.” 

Someone did, and it was.

Just maybe, the events of 9-11 were our call to embrace Leviticus 19:14.

It’s a chapter and verse we can live by.

© 2001 Paul Franklin Stregevsky

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