Living in Monsey, New York, and not working in New York City, I don’t really have occasion to ride the bus very often. When I was visiting Israel, I did utilize buses – and they were very helpful – but there’s a certain peril to riding public transit. If you get on late and don’t have a place to sit, you could turn into a human pinball, bouncing from place to place with each pothole and pitfall.

Your only hope is to find a pole or a strap to hold onto to secure yourself in place. The term “straphangers,” refers to people who ride the bus often, and indeed, they hold onto those loops of rubber, leather, or whatever material it is hanging from the roof of the bus, as a means of remaining upright. That’s precisely why they’re there, so people can stabilize themselves.

Maybe you haven’t ridden a bus but you’ve been on a train or subway, or maybe even on a monorail or shuttle at an airport or amusement park. You know that if you don’t want to get bumps and bruises, you need to be holding onto something.

Only God Defines Morality

The idea for this discussion came to me, surprisingly, not when I was riding some mode of transport, but rather when I was comfortably seated in a dining room chair. The part that got rough was the conversation. The person asking me questions had some ideas of his own about right and wrong and how the world works. He was trying to justify the “Jewish” response to things based on his reasoning.

I said to him that in order to answer any questions, and in fact, to properly ask them, we need to have a baseline. The baseline, I said, was Hashem (God) and the Torah. Good and evil are not defined by human understanding, but by Hashem. It has to be that way, because people can be convinced to see things from any perspective. Even murder isn’t fully evil.

How many people would readily commit someone who doesn’t agree with them to death? The sad answer is too many. From the animal rights activist who blew up a laboratory in Maryland years ago, destroying research that was close to a breakthrough in Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, choosing rats over babies, to the people who hate politicians so much that they would like to see them tortured and killed because they don’t view them as real people. It’s a scary reality.

The fellow I was speaking to said, “Well, everyone would agree the Holocaust was bad.” I disagreed. There are many people who hate us and think that not enough was done to rid the world of Jews. Killing is only bad if you have a moral code. As a scholarly individual once explained to me, “G-d defines morality.” If Hashem says it’s good, then it’s good regardless of how people view it (like killing Amalek or vanquishing the inhabitants of Canaan.) If Hashem says it’s bad, even though the world at large doesn’t view it so, (think about sneaky business practices or harmful words) then it’s bad.

He Who Stands for Nothing, Will Fall for Anything

When I was speaking to this person who felt he could be the arbiter of right and wrong based on his feelings and intellectual acumen, I got this visual image of a straphanger. Without something to ground us, we will never be able to maintain our balance. We’ll be subject to the twists and turns of life, and the opinions splashed upon us like the water of so many murky puddles.

There’s a saying, “The person who stands for nothing, will fall for anything.” People without principles can sink to the lowest levels. In a world where the law of the land is “survival of the fittest,” people will devour each other for their own benefit. That’s where the Torah comes in. Hashem gave it to us in order to ground us; to keep us on our feet.

The Torah directs us to seek out the benefit of others, and to treat people fairly. It is not our place to determine which people, because the Torah only distinguishes in cases like Amalek or a speaker of Lashon Hara, when the person is trying to harm you spiritually as well as physically, and deny you your eternity. You don’t get to decide that because someone disagrees with you, he deserves to be gone.

Which Way is Up

Someone speaking to the Chazon Ish mentioned a certain Israeli politician and said, “Yemach shemo, may his name be erased.” The Chazon Ish was incensed. “If he were to die without children, the Torah would say his brother must marry his wife in order to carry on his name. Who are you to contradict Hashem?!” And that’s what we need to remember. In order to see things the right way, we need to be upright and supported by the only thing which is solid – Hashem, Himself. The only way to do that is to hold tightly to the Torah, and realize that on our own, we may not always be able to figure out which way is up.

By Rabbi Jonathan Gewirtz

Rabbi Gewirtz (Operation Inspiration) welcomes comments and feedback. Write to him at to share your thoughts. You never know when you may be the lamp that enlightens someone else.

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