Dear Cyber Rav,
I write to you anonymously because I am too embarrassed to ask my own rabbi. I consider myself a good person. A hasid I’m not, but my wife and I keep a kosher home and I’m at shul, let’s say, once-a-month or more. I love our rabbi and Yiddishkeit means a great deal to me. The problem is my conscience. I own a small retail dress shop that has been rather popular in the community, but like so many other businesses we’ve taken a hit. A big hit, if you ask me. Perhaps due to the store’s popularity, our line of merchandise and customer service, we’re surviving (not easily), but many of my competitors are not. Several of them have “Going Out of Business” signs on their store fronts and one has definitely filed for Chapter 11. And each time this happens, I find myself taking pleasure in their downfall. I laugh inside. And once I’ve laughed, I feel sick about it too. But should another “Business Closing” sign go up, the pattern repeats—pleasure, and then embarrassment over what is clearly a sick response to someone else’s misery. Am I a bad person? I’m struggling with this one.
Surviving but with Guilt
Dear Surviving but with Guilt,
Ah, guilt—what would the Jewish people do without it!
I don’t think you’re bad and I don’t think you’re sick. I think that you, like everyone else in this world, have a yetzer hara (an evil inclination) and a yetzer hatov (a good inclination). Your yetzer hara is taking pleasure in the downfall of a competitor. That stands to reason because one competitor less can only mean more business for you, someday at least, when this recession comes to an end. But at the same time, your yetzer hatov, clearly well-developed, is reprimanding you. How can you take pleasure in someone else’s misery? The yetzer hatov is telling you that your laughter isn’t so nice. So rather than beat yourself up, the first thing you should do is thank God that you have a yetzer hara that allows you to recognize economic reality which makes you a smart person, and you should also thank God that you have a yetzer hatov which allows you to critique your emotions and hold in check those which are less than honorable. If you went over to your competitor and laughed in his face—that would clearly be unconscionable. You haven’t done that and it sounds like you’re the kind of person who would never do it.
What can you do? You can do this: Call your competitors and, acknowledging the fact that they have run up against harsh economic times, ask if there is anything you can do for them. There probably isn’t anything you can do for them materially, but a call offering support and a listening ear could mean the world to them. Take the energy of your internal laughter, and turn it into a mitzvah—comforting a mourner. I think you would agree that the death of a business renders the owner a mourner and even our competitors are deserving of our compassion.
One other thought: If your laughter really bothers you and you seek some way to finally put the kibosh on it, consider these words from Kohelet—
The race is not won by the swift,
Nor the battle by the valiant;
Nor is bread won by the wise,
Nor wealth by the intelligent,
Nor favor by the learned, for the time of mischance comes to all. As fishes are enmeshed in a fatal net, and as birds are trapped in a snare, so men are caught at the time of calamity, when it comes upon them without warning. (Kohelet 9:11-12).
For the time being, your business sounds safe, but one of the reasons why we help others is so that should we ever find ourselves in similar straits, we will be deserving of another’s help.
Rabbi Rafi Rank
The Cyber Rav