Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A Taxi Driver

My latest article in Kaminando y Avlando, the Sephardi Hebrew Congregation of Cape Town's monthly publication:


When I first started praying at the Kurdi Beit Knesset near my home, a co-worker asked me, "Isn't that the Beit Knesset where the taxi drivers pray?" This happened four years ago, and I felt that this innocent comment was rather insulting to the Beit Knesset’s members. Why would a house of worship be defined by the occupation of those who pray there? “I don’t know,” I responded to the co-worker and continued on my way.

One of the people who prays with me at another Beit Knesset near my place is a taxi driver. Granted, I think he’s doing it for some extra money as I think he’s retired but he’s still a taxi driver. Abroad, one would scoff at that line of work – here too apparently. A taxi driver? Peasants. Probably a high school dropout, or a lazy person who couldn’t make it in the corporate world. However, this taxi driver (and many others too) is special. He’s a phenomenal shat"z (shaliach tzibbur, the person who leads the prayers) and ba'al koreh (the person who reads the Torah). What’s even more impressive is that his four boys (I've never met his two girls) are all excellent when they're called to be the shat"z or ba'al koreh, from the youngest (14) to the oldest (25). Yup, a taxi driver ... A phenomenal man.

The above reminds me of the story of the Rabbi who entered the classroom every morning to find new insights on the Talmud on his chalkboard. Every day, without fail, the chalkboard contained pearls of wisdom that were mostly new to him. One evening, the Rabbi stayed in the corner of the classroom and waited for the protégé to reveal himself. At midnight, the yeshiva's elderly janitor walked into the room. To the Rabbi’s amazement, he sat down at a desk, begun reading the Talmud and started to scribble on the chalkboard. His genius was the janitor.

Of course not every janitor proves to be an Einstein, nor every taxi driver a scholar, but the point is that profession alone does not define a man (or woman), and if you write someone off, or judge them negatively, simply because of what they do, you're navigating by stereotype and closing yourself off to unexpected learning and human connection. I guess both stories are rather nicely summed up by Pirkei Avot 1:6, “Judge every person favorably.”

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