11.02.2022 - Public Transport Source Sheet

Public Transportation: A Jewish Value

Source Sheet by Rabbi David Polsky and Detroit Jews for Justice; Translations adapted from Sefaria

To access a printable version, click here

This November, voters in Oakland, Wayne, and Macomb counties will have the opportunity to vote YES on the Public Transportation Millage. The millage, which has been in place for many years, is the only fund that allows public transportation to operate in these counties. Without it, all buses connecting Detroit to the suburbs would stop running, and the thousands of people who
commute to work between the two would have no transportation to and from their jobs.

It’s vital that we protect this important resource by voting YES to keep the Public Transportation Millage, not just because it’s good for SE Michigan, but because public transit is a Jewish value.


Source 1

The Talmud (Berachot 29b) recommends that someone going on a journey longer than a parsang (3.5 miles) should recite this prayer:

Siddur Ashkenaz, Berachot, Tellat HaDerech
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.


Discussion


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
for granted. 

Source 2

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:

 

Bava Metzia 107a:12-13

... when Rabbi Abba encountered Rav’s students he said to them: What does Rav say with regard to the meaning of these verses of blessing: “Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the eld” (Deuteronomy 28:3), and: “Blessed shall you be when you enter, and blessed shall you be when you exit” (Deuteronomy 28:6)? And they said to him: This is what Rav said: “Blessed shall you be in the city” means that your house should be adjacent to a synagogue, and the phrase: “Blessed shall you be in the eld” means that your property should be near the city...


Discussion


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 on Bava Metzia 107a:13:1: Near the city --so that it should not be burdensome to bring fruits there...

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.


Source 3

This Mishnah speaks about the public works undertaken by the rabbinic court in the springtime when the Temple stood. Many Jews in those days would make pilgrimages to Jerusalem for the festivals of Passover, Shavuot (in the late spring), and Sukkot (the early fall). The holiday of Purim, which falls at the end of the winter rainy season and exactly a month before Passover, was thus
the perfect time to repair the damaged roads in time for travelers to use them for their Passover pilgrimages.

Mishnah Shekalim 1:1


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...


Discussion


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.


Source 4


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.


Discussion


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.
Although R. Bahya lived hundreds of years before the modern welfare state or socialism, his teaching expresses their philosophical basis more cogently than most social theorists.

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.

On the other hand, we should bear in mind that there is a reason why R. Bahya chooses this contemplation over other possible scenarios to discipline the mind towards caring for others. It is because group travel best illustrates the notion that we are sticking together to collectively work towards a shared destination.


That group travel best expresses this idea shows us the importance of public transportation: If we really mean what we claim to believe–that we become better people and are best served when we focus on the needs of others–then, even if we don’t travel with others ourselves, we will enable others to travel together as a group.


If we believe in riding with others figuratively, we should also foster the ability of people to ride with others literally.

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