Jewish History Blog

Free Advice

One of the many blessings bestowed upon the fortunate residents  in Jerusalem is free advice from strangers about all sorts of issues, petty and great. I was once again made aware of this compassionate bent of Israelis on my last visit accompanying my wife to our local shmitta approved fruit and vegetable store. As we were at the register checking out our purchases I asked that the box of produce be delivered to our home, a wonderful service of the store. I spoke in what I thought was flawless Hebrew and asked the manager if it could be delivered by noon. I used a noun that I believed could be perfectly understood as being noon.

A woman, a complete stranger, walking by the counter on her way to squeeze some tomatoes, said to me: “The word you used for noon is incorrect. The word is used only for midnight.” Before I could even thank her for that piece of linguistic instruction she was already giving the tomatoes a hard time at the other end of the store. I know that she meant well but it really was none of her business. If I wish to be grammatically incorrect it is my personal privilege to be so. The store manager understood my request perfectly. But I know that she, like all practitioners of the art of free and unsolicited advice, meant only well and for my benefit.

I appear on Israeli television three times a week on a pre-recorded “Ask the Rabbi” format as well as a once a week full hour lecture. I receive many comments, both oral and written, about these programs. I also receive a great deal of free advice about the contents and appearance of the program. A person pursued me for weeks insisting that the ties that I wear on the program are not the “right kind” and suggested a tie store here in Jerusalem that I should use to buy the “right kind” of tie. I suspected that the tie store was in actuality owned by his brother-in-law but then was angry at myself for harboring such negative thoughts about a fellow Jerusalemite who undoubtedly had my best interests at heart.

After so many decades of serving as a congregational rabbi I am quite accustomed to receive much free advice in copious amounts from varying sources. Every person has a number of people, confidants, whose unsolicited advice he is prepared to hear and perhaps even follow. But most unsolicited advice from people who really don’t know or understand you should be shrugged off. And if a rabbi is to keep his sanity – a prime requirement for the profession – then he must become semi-immune to free advice being offered so generously and regularly to him. I receive unsolicited advice on every facet of my life from well-meaning people, many if not most times about issues that are obviously out of their realm of expertise.

I try to smile, thank the person, and then continue on my own merry way. Even parents have to be wary of giving unsolicited advice to their children when those children are grown and out of the house. Even though honoring one’s parents is a cardinal commandment in Jewish life, one is not bound to follow their advice or wishes in personal matters, such as the choice of a mate or profession. Parents often and naturally find it difficult to let go. But I have witnessed many times in my rabbinic career families torn apart because of unsolicited advice and instructions given by parents to adult children. I once had a case of a married couple who were constantly warring over the penchant of the husband to advise his wife, who had her own tastes, as to the type and style and color of the clothing she wore. If one’s opinion is not requested then it should not be given gratuitously. Free advice in family matters, no matter how small and seemingly unimportant, is usually a recipe for contentiousness and difficulties. Thus free advice is rarely free of later consequences, usually completely unforeseen.

The main reservoir of free advice here in Israel, as perhaps in other parts of the world as well, is the taxi-driver. There is no subject about which he is not well-versed and more than willing to share his knowledge with his long-suffering fare customer. A taxi-driver who somehow recognized me once advised me as to the proper topic for next Shabbat’s sermon in my synagogue, a synagogue which he never visits or attends. I think he wanted a sizeable tip for the advice that he gave me on top of the taxi fare on the meter. People should rein in their good intentions and wisdom as far as others are concerned. Free advice is often wrong and most times unwanted. How did that woman in the fruit and vegetable store know that I did not perhaps mean midnight? After all who wants to receive a fruit and vegetable delivery after midnight? Well, I don’t know why I am offering you all of this free advice on free advice. Please feel free to ignore it at your discretion. Free is rarely valuable.

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  • March 3, 2021

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