Monday, March 2, 2009

In Customer Service, you can be right and dead at the same time

When I was learning to drive, someone – I believe it was my older brother – gave me advice I have never forgotten.

I was at an all-way Stop sign, and other cars were approaching Stop signs of their own at that intersection. I was about to proceed forward, until he reminded me that the other cars might not halt. Even though I would be right in entering the intersection, as he put it, “You can be right and dead at the same time.”

Over the years, that advice has stuck with me and guided me through innumerable rabbinic situations. A rabbi, and a synagogue, are in the business of Customer Service, and in this field more than any other, you can truly be right and dead at the same time.

I would love to present my own experiences in this regard, but I'm going to keep myself safe. Instead, here are a few sample "customer service" cases for rabbis and synagogues:

1) You have a staircase in the shul, near an area where children play. Rather than put a gate at the top of the steps, you ask parents to watch their children. Eventually, one of the kids falls down the steps and gets hurt.

You are right that you have done all you need do under the law, and you are right that your insurance will cover any claim – but, believe me, in the moral eyes of the community you are dead.

2) The shul publishes a notice for people to contact the office regarding seats for Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur. You announce it on Shabbos morning. One family, who is in shul every year for Yamim Noraim, does not come to you – and so you give away their seats.

You are right that you announced it – but, when that family comes to shul on Rosh HaShanah to find that their seats have been given away, you are quite dead.

3) You, as gabbai, distribute aliyot on Shabbat morning. You know that someone has yahrtzeit for his father that day, but he’s not there by chazarat hashatz (repetition of the amidah) for Shacharit – because he always comes to shul 45 minutes late, right as the Torah is being carried around the shul. You don’t save him an aliyah.

You are right that he should have been there on time, and you are right that you apply the same policy for everyone – but, when he gets upset that you didn’t give him an aliyah for his father’s yahrtzeit, you’re dead anyway.

4) [Note – the following has never happened to me; it’s just an illustration.] A person who left the shul last year in a nasty fight, refusing to pay up on any number of commitments and slandering everyone involved, is now in the hospital for a minor procedure. He calls up, unapologetically demanding the rabbi visit right now – but it’s the afternoon before Rosh HaShanah and it's raining and cold and road conditions are awful and you have a million other obligations. You decide to wait until after Rosh HaShanah.

You are right that he has burned his bridges, and that he has no claim on your time beyond what you choose to give him – but, when he starts telling people that the rabbi won’t visit him in the hospital, guess who’s dead?

Immortal words, applicable not only to customer service but to family life, communal life, and even the way we relate to ourselves: You can be right and dead at the same time.

Better to be wrong and alive, in my book.


  1. On the other hand, if you let people like the one in the final example push you around TOO much, you could STILL be dead - literally. heart attacks happen when leaders spend more time worrying about appearances than taking care of themselves.

  2. A very good lesson. When I was engaged, my mother told me to remember that, in arguments with my husband, I should first think to myself, "What is more important -- being right or being married?"

  3. In Israel there was a driving safety public announcement in which the punch line was:
    על הכביש אל תהיה צודק, תהיה חכם
    on the road don't be right be smart!

  4. Tzipporah-
    Too true; everything to everyone...

    Yes, that's an important variation on the theme, although I'd avoid the linguistic parallel of married/dead... and happy birthday!

    A good thought, anyway; I wish people would follow it.

  5. Such timing. I'm in the middle of running our local elections, and I can relate to this post, more than I'd like.

  6. Muse-
    Oh, boy. Mix Jews, Israelis, rights and politics... forget it.

  7. some of the best advice I have ever received...Do you wanna be right or do you wanna be happy, bec sometimes you can't have both.