Public Transportation: A Jewish Value
Source Sheet by Rabbi David Polsky and Detroit Jews for Justice; Translations adapted from Sefaria
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commute to work between the two would have no transportation to and from their jobs.
May it be Your will, Eternal One, our G-d and the G-d of our ancestors, that You lead us toward peace, support our footsteps towards peace, guide us toward peace, and make us reach our desired destination, for life, joy, and peace. May You rescue us from the hand of every enemy, ambush, bandits and wild animals along the way, and from all manner of punishments that rage and come
to Earth. May You send blessing in everything we do, and grant us peace, kindness, and mercy in your eyes and in the eyes of all who see us. May You hear the sound of our pleas, because You are the G-d who hears prayer and pleas. Blessed are You, Eternal One, Who hears prayer.
Many car owners who live in the suburbs often drive a much greater distance to work every day (and don’t recite such prayers because such trips are routine). However, travel of such distances was classically seen as dangerous, as a person dependent on others (or even their feet) could be vulnerable to any number of dangers. The prayer thus reminds us that, for many in the Detroit community, the ability to travel is not something that can be taken
How would the inability to access your place of work affect your ability to support yourself or your family? Here’s what the sages of the Talmud have to say about it:
What does it mean to be blessed regarding a city? To not be burdened by traveling to synagogue. Someone who lives far away from a synagogue (and doesn’t drive their own car) will be unable to go to synagogue (or at least nd it strenuous, time-consuming, or both). Although the privileged can afford to take the ability to pray in synagogue for granted, this is not something that everyone is blessed with. The other blessing, “that your property should be near the city” requires some thought. Why should it be such a blessing to have property near the city? Rashi’s commentary on this phrase helps us here:
Rashi fills in that the person described in the biblical verse sells fruit. If their orchard is faraway from the city, it becomes a (literal) schlep to bring all of their fruit to the market in the city. If they can’t transport their fruit, they can’t make a living! Rashi thus reminds us that proximity to work is a blessing, while those without access to good jobs cannot make a good living (not everyone is privileged to have a job they can do over their computer). We cannot expect people to work if we don’t enable them to get there.
the perfect time to repair the damaged roads in time for travelers to use them for their Passover pilgrimages.
And on the fteenth day of the month of Adar, the Scroll [ Megilla ] of Esther is read in the cities [ kerakim ] surrounded by walls from the time of Joshua. And they also repair the roads that were damaged in the winter, and the streets, and the cisterns...
The rabbinic court assumes that the transportation needs of the people are so essential that they cannot be left to individuals to sponsor. It is a collective need such that the representatives of the community even use public funds in order to prepare the roads. It can be argued that public transit nowadays would also be an example of public works requiring oversight and organization by the rabbinic representatives of the people.
The following selection is taken from “Duties of the Heart,” by R. Bahya Ben Joseph Ibn Pakuda (1050-1120). Its main thesis is that just as the Jew’s body has duties to serve G-d through the Mitzvot, their heart also has duties towards G-d. The work therefore strives to enable the heart of the reader to better fulll its duties.
This particular selection is taken from the section that speaks about perfecting one’s sensibilities through contemplation, often by meditating on imagined scenarios that help to inculcate the particular attitude. There are a total of thirty contemplations in this section, and this selection is taken from the 22nd contemplation, which has the goal of a person training themselves to want
for others what they would like for themselves.
To make an accounting with oneself regarding his joining with people for furthering the general welfare, such as plowing or harvesting, buying and selling, and other societal matters which people help each other in - that [they] loves for them what [they] would love would happen to [themself], and that [they] hate for them what [they] would hate would happen to [themself], and
that [they have] compassion for them, and saves them, according to [their] ability, from what would damage them, as written: "love your fellow as you love yourself"
Let one apply in this the following analogy: A group of people travel to a distant land on a difficult journey. They need to stop in several stops along the way, and they have many animals loaded with heavy loads, and the [people] are few, each one has many animals he must unload and reload frequently. If they will help each other in loading and unloading, and their desire is for the peace of all and to lighten each others' burden, and that they equally share the load of helping eachother - they will reach the best results. But if their opinions differ and they do not agree to one plan, and each one exerts to further only [their] own interests - most will become exhausted.
R. Bahya’s meditation speaks about people traveling together. In the imagined scenario, the group will be much more likely to reach their destination if each person in the group works collaboratively and collectively with the other members rather than just focusing on themselves. Similarly, in other areas of life as well, we will be more likely to achieve our personal aims if we help each other rather than focusing on ourselves, which only serves to undermine them.
Just as instructive is his selection of a scenario in which the group is more successful in their journey when they focus on the needs of others than themselves. On the one hand, R. Bahya is not directly arguing for public transportation, but is rather using the image to make a larger point.