Kenny and I entered the Metro car at 8:30 on a Wednesday night after happy hour – and then some – at Carving Room in Chinatown. The Yellow-line train heading south was sparse. One woman wearing a pinstripe suit sat in the first row on the far side, and one man wearing a solid green necktie tied in a full Windsor knot read a paperback from his seat behind her.
“Aren’t you going to take that?” Kenny said, pointing to the open row just to my right knee as I walked in. Those were the seats above which was a blue sign of a person in a wheelchair.
I laughed. I had the kind of anything-goes camaraderie with Kenny, also known as my Taller-Younger-Yet Older-Looking Cousin. We’d just spent two-and-a-half hours volleying ideas about hosting a podcast. The podcast’s working title: “Two Disabled Cousins Slash Friends.”
Okay, so the title may need more work.
Taller-Younger-Yet Older-Looking Cousin has an obsessive disorder that can limit his activities. Ask Kenny and he’ll accurately state that his cousin Ben (that’s me) has many disorders. The most obvious is physical: I use crutches when I walk long distances. I call them my quadsteppers.
My quadsteppers and I fell into the row adjacent to the one reserved for disabled individuals, which Taller-Younger-Yet Older-Looking Cousin took. His joke led me to think of my interaction from twelve hours earlier. I began sharing this story as our train accelerated towards Archives-Navy Memorial-Penn Quarter station.
That morning, I had entered the Metro car at Gallery Place. A blonde woman sitting in the disabled row stood, I assumed because she saw me. I continued standing and holding the pole with my right arm and holding my quadsteppers with my left. I was then, always have been, and may forever be too stubborn to accept that offer. The blonde remained standing and facing away from me, at least until I exited two stops later at Union Station.
“She was probably too embarrassed to return to her seat,” Taller-Younger-Yet Older-Looking Cousin said after I finished telling the story.
“I’m sorry, I couldn’t help overhear,” Pinstripe said. Strangers on the Metro never spoke to each other, except to offer disabled persons seats. This was exciting. “It reminded me of something that happened a couple weeks ago after we got that little bit of ice. A man was pushing himself in a wheelchair on the sidewalk behind me. I spotted black ice up ahead. I turned to him and suggested he roll towards the edge of the sidewalk to bypass the black ice. He didn’t say anything. When he reached the black ice, he just rolled right over it. Even I wouldn’t step on it!”
“It’s possible he was upset with you for making that suggestion,” I said. I understood that feeling. I used to get filled with rage when someone offered me his or her seat. Now, I appreciate the gesture. Just don’t insist twice.
“I feel bad now!” Pinstripe said. Behind her, Reader looked up and chuckled. This was the liveliest Metro car I’d ever been in. Also, now I had a captive audience and four stations until my and Taller-Younger-Yet Older-Looking Cousin’s stop at Crystal City.
“Here’s a hypothetical,” I said. All three looked at me. “This is based on the Jewish retreat I attended this past weekend. Well, I should clarify it was more like a retreat for Jews who aren’t really Jews. Well, I should clarify that. We’re Jews, but some of us just don’t do traditionally Jew-y things.”
Reader was cracking up at this point. “I grew up Catholic. I get it,” he said.
“Me, too!” Pinstripe said.
“And I grew up as a Jew doing Jew-y things,” Taller-Younger-Yet Older-Looking Cousin said. “Go on.”
“So we were on this retreat discussing what Judaism is, and what it means to be Jewish. The topic for one of the breakout sessions I attended was forgiveness. Judaism has a lot of rules, so of course there are specific ones to determine what is an acceptable apology and acceptance of that apology.”
“You and your rules,” Taller-Younger-Yet Older-Looking Cousin said. He was referring to my self-imposed rules on when I’m allowed to eat carbohydrates, how I only drink each kind of beer one time ever, how I must interact with at least one stranger every time I go out…rules for pretty much everything in my life. Taller-Younger-Yet Older-Looking Cousin loves ribbing me for my rules in front of others.
Pinstripe and Reader looked confused, and there wasn’t enough time left to explain both that and my retreat. I ignored Taller-Younger-Yet Older-Looking Cousin.
“Back to my hypothetical. As I understand the Jewish rules on forgiveness, if you did harm to another person, you must gather three of that person’s friends and, in their presence, apologize to the person whom you harmed. At that point, you have done your duty as the apologizer and the burden is off you. The burden is then on the person receiving the apology to forgive you. If that person doesn’t forgive you, then he or she is now the sinner. One could argue that by standing, the blonde woman from this morning was offering me an apology on behalf of the randomness of the world giving me bone cancer. I didn’t accept her seat, which meant I didn’t forgive her. She was probably offended by that. Forgetting about the three-friends rule: does that mean the burden is now on me to apologize to her?”
The implications of my hypothetical were severe. A woman offers her seat, and you decline: you must apologize. Someone murders your loved one and apologizes for it, and you don’t forgive that person: you must apologize to the murderer.
What followed was an eleven-minute discussion on Judaism. Not the kind of Judaism that requires rituals or excludes gentiles, but rather the kind we discussed on my Beyond the Tent retreat: the deeper-thinking kind of Judaism. The kind of Judaism that is relevant, active, and meaningful. The kind of Judaism that focuses on spirituality, culture, ethics, wisdom, and community.
By the time Taller-Younger-Yet Older-Looking Cousin and I said goodbye to our new deeper-thinking Metro friends, I realized that Beyond the Tent had affected me. I now think differently. Before, I thought someone who committed an unkind act was simply not cool, but now, I realize the ripple effect could cause real harm and that offender should apologize. Before, I looked down at offenders who didn’t apologize immediately. Now, I consider that asking for forgiveness and forgiving may take time, despite what the rules of Judaism state, and I am in no position to judge when that period of time ends. And, instead of holding someone who twice offers his or her Metro seat to me in contempt, I’ll consider the courage it took to make that offer. Of course, I still won’t accept the seat.
I don’t yet know how much Beyond the Tent will impact my life; I may never fully be conscious of that. Ultimately, that doesn’t matter. Consider this reason why: During our first small-group session, my facilitator asked us to write what we wanted to get out of the retreat. Why were we there?
I’m a writer. I’ve learned tools to overcome writer’s block. And yet, for two minutes I sat there unable to write anything. Why was I there? All that came to mind was that I met Rabbi Aaron, liked him, appreciated his passion for this retreat, wanted to support him, and accepted his offer to apply for Beyond the Tent without even considering what I wanted out of it.
And there is my answer: I had nothing I wanted to get out of Beyond the Tent. I had no expectation. I accepted the adventure with an open mind and came out changed in ways I may never know.
That got me thinking: What if we approached many opportunities in life this way?
Instead of interacting with others with an expectation that it will end with you inputting digits into your phone or a new friend to drink IPAs with, or with sex, why not simply let that interaction simply be.
Instead of wanting to get something specific out of an adventure you’re excited about, just do it and then the only possible direction is up, not down. Instead of waiting for someone to offer a Metro seat a second time so you can fill with rage, just appreciate the gesture as it arrives, each time it arrives.
Just pretty please, don’t ask me three times.
About the Author. Benjamin Rubenstein is a part of our “Gather the Bloggers” cohort of talented writers who share their thoughts and insights about DC Jewish life with you! Benjamin is the author of the Cancer-Slaying Super Man books. You can subscribe to his quarterly newsletter, Words by ruBENstein.