We’re all in the same boat: What a 1,500 year old parable can teach us about this moment

Illustration by Getty Images.

A group of people were sitting in a boat. One person pulled out a hand-drill and proceeded to drill a hole beneath their seat. The fellow passengers screamed at the incredulous sight and asked, “What do you think you’re doing?!” The hole-driller dismissed the question and responded, “What do you care? Am I not drilling under my seat?”

They replied: “Because you are sinking the boat with us in it!’”

This is not the description of a recent political cartoon. This is a 1,500 year old parable of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai — and yet, the poignancy of the message is not lost on us.

Our society has evolved from NIMBY (not in my backyard) forty years ago, to what I call today’s WDYCIMBY (what do you care it’s my backyard). No longer do people solely protest in the spirit of countering the restriction of their civil liberties, but more in the spirit of “I can do what I want because it is mine and it doesn’t impact you.” This is the thought process of the hand-driller in the boat.

The problem with this mindset is that it is fundamentally flawed in two ways: (1) what we do will always impact someone else, implicitly, over time and space; (2) how we relate to each other is predicated on our obligation to each other.

How do our actions impact each other? As Henk Aarts et. al argue in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, witnessing someone striving toward a goal can push you to adopt that goal as well. In fact, in the Jewish legal discourse of the Talmud, the rabbis sometimes based their “ruling” on the concept of “pok chazei” — go out and see what people are doing. Simply put: what we see changes what we do and who we are. We become what we witness.

Nevertheless, independent of observation, over 100 years ago Poincaré and Wiener wrote about the Butterfly Effect. Further, political and scientific leaders have often written and reference various treatises on the Domino Effect, especially during the 1950s. What we do and how we act — even when others do not see it — will eventually set off a reaction, near or far in time, impacting someone and/or something else.

But back to the hand-driller. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s parable implicitly raises the question underlying the second fundamental flaw referenced above: what is a person’s obligation to others?

Across the Abrahamic traditions, “love your neighbor as yourself” is a central principle. What does it really mean “as yourself”? Many excerpt the beginning of the charge — love your neighbor. Those “respecting” others and showing them kindness might think they are fulfilling this directive, at the same time believing they personally live in their own bubble.

The end of the charge, however, is most revealing: as yourself. This is not “treat others the way you want to be treated.” This is a categorical command to love others as if they are you. Each human being is an extension of you. We are all one — together. To believe otherwise is contrary to the foundational belief of being created in the image of God. Believing otherwise is the epitome of selfishness.

To be clear: NIMBY was a time when people were egotistical — that is, people had too inflated an opinion of themselves. They considered their own self-worth rather than how others perceived them. Our current WDYCIMBY era finds people putting their own needs and desires before those of others. Self-interest inspires their every action and they shirk their implicit obligation to others.

This is not about politics. This is about humanity and human decency. If you are responsible for sinking the boat with all of us in it, then you fly in the face of thousands of years of religious and spiritual doctrine, informing faiths across generations and continents. You may relish that revolution. But that revolution ends with our collective end.