Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Torah of Traffic: Spiritual Lessons from Everyday Driving

          If God is One and everywhere at once, then surely there are spiritual lessons to be learned from the most ordinary and everyday acts in our lives.  Indeed, I believe, there is great Torah, great teaching to be found in the act of driving.
          This Torah of traffic comes to us in many forms.  Clearly there is a sense of the blessing we might say upon getting our license.  And then there is the very different blessing -- a prayer and a plea -- we would say on the occasion of... one of our children getting a license!  

          I am sure that all of you have your own insights on this topic. Here are a few of mine – along with one recent realization that I think is a great way to approach the coming High Holy Days.
          First: the great decision.  To stay, or to switch?  How we handle lanes and changing lanes is a significant act.  It tests loyalty, patience, a sense of playing the odds.  It balances being in the moment versus the goal of getting someplace a few seconds faster.  And, in fact, physics offers some assistance here.  I once heard that an extensive scientific study of traffic flow reveals an essential equality in outcome to which lane one is in.  And, actually, it may be that those who do crazy things or aggressively shift lanes or stay in the lane they know will disappear in 500 feet… actually help the flow of movement in the end.
          Second: state of mind, inner peace – and geography -- all affect our behavior on the road.   I cannot find the original study, but I remember a report which indicated that how long someone waits to honk their horn at a slow car in front of them varies a great deal by location.  And studies continue to prove that our environment affects our aggressiveness.  How we feel, who we are, and where we are… matters.  Place matters.  Maybe those who claim, for example, that there is something “different” about being in Israel… are on to something after all.  (Although driving, aggressive behavior on the road and the sound of horns are not the immediately obvious indicators of any usual sense of the sacred.)
          Third: driving is an entire social construct in which inner and outer worlds meet.  Soon I will write a separate column about a Stop sign, and what happened when a road was closed off in one direction, but the original stop sign remained in place – even though there was now no possible safety reason for the sign to be there.  What I mean, now, is this: think of all the things, the fixed and the moving parts, the whole view you have when you are driving down the road.  The thing is, though, that no one else has that same picture.  Because there is something missing from your picture, that everyone else can see.  And that something – is you.  We see everyone else’s behavior, and evaluate it.  But unless there are obvious reactions often involving hands and symbolic gestures, we often have no sense at all of how our own driving impacts those around us.  We see out more clearly than we see in.  Just as, in group relations, we often generalize from the very worst examples of the behavior of others, and consider typical only the very best about ourselves.
          Finally, though, what I want to focus on comes back to the act, and art, of changing lanes.  I was so frustrated the other day, in a place where I merged from the right but had to exit left very shortly after that… when no one would let me in.  Signal on, intent obvious, I almost caused an accident behind me because everyone else had to rush forward instead of simply letting me slide in front of them for a short while as I made my way across the lanes.  The words I kept thinking, with increasing intensity, were: “let me in!”

          Here, then, is a powerful lesson for the Days of Awe, and for any way in which we build a community.  We have to be there, and be aware… and we have to let each other in.
          Yes, where you are going is important.  But so, too, are the needs of others.  As Hillel put it centuries ago: 

אם אין אני לי, מי לי?
 וכשאני לעצמי, מה אני?

Im ein ani li, mi li?
U’ch’she’ani l’atzmi, mah ani?
If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
But if I am only for myself, what am I?
(Pirkei Avot 1:14)

          Driving, and the High Holy Days, and an ethical life, all require a balance, between assertiveness, and grace; between self and other; between yield, and go.  To get anywhere safely, to accomplish anything of value, we need to know where we are going.  And we need to let each other in.
          That is the Torah of traffic, the ethics of the everyday and a lesson for the modern world, from a very ancient tradition.