Off the Pulpit

Your Neighbor’s Fire

The Roman poet Horace wrote, “it is your affair when your neighbor’s house in on fire.” For two kinds of people, it is of concern for two types of reasons. 

Some worry about the neighbor’s house being on fire solely because theirs might catch fire. Such people judge every social event in terms of how it might affect them. How will this policy touch upon my taxes, my school system, or my health care? Such a view is not wrong, but it is limited.

The second is the one who is also concerned because someone else is suffering. This is the person who evaluates the world not only through the lens of self-interest (for we all do that) but through the lens of the other as well. This is the Jewish attitude.

Hillel’s famous dictum, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” is followed immediately by, “If I am only for myself, what am I?” Hillel does not even know how to define a person who cares only for him or herself. Even if fire stops at the neighbor’s house, we should feel a bit burned too.