Selflessness ≠ Specialness: Cory Booker and the Burning Building
Now come on. Cory Booker, Rhodes Scholar, Yale Law grad, beloved Newark Mayor and snow shoveler–already someone who made us all feel a little less special when we looked at our own accomplishments. Now Cory, you go and do this.
Late last night, coming home from a TV appearance, Mayor Booker saw that his neighbor’s building was on fire. He ran into the burning building, dashed up to the second floor, and SAVED a woman by grabbing her and carrying her through the flames. You did not read that wrong. Cory Booker, someone in no need of more Special points, ran into a burning building and saved a distressed maiden, suffering second degree burns in the process.
In full disclosure, your humble editor knew Mayor Booker while Cory was a law school Fellow. He went along with me, in fact, to try a Friday night dinner at Chai Society, Yale’s alternative to Hillel, founded by the delightful Shmully Hecht. Rabbi Shmully was about my age, looked like a teenager, knew ten times what I knew and appeared to be already in his second career. The rumor at the time was that he had been a successful Wall Street trader who gave it all up for the Rabbinate. That first Shabbat night he made Corey, me, and our friend Sofia feel completely welcome, despite the fact that I force-shook the hand of his sister. (Devorah was Shomer Negiah, meaning she restricted her physical contact with the opposite sex. Clueless, and wanting to show what a friendly chap I was, I reached out and grabbed her hand to shake firmly. I instantly knew something was wrong when her hand went limp as a fish and slipped back out. ) Far from making me feel bad, Shmully laughed it off and explained what had happened; for him the priority was to make me feel welcome–not to correct or shame–and to me that still represents Judaism at its best. Even Devorah waived it off, as if people grabbed at her hand all the time.
While I was botching my greetings and otherwise fumbling, Cory, a Black Baptist from New Jersey, fit in like Maimonides himself. Laughing, hand shaking, taking up arguments, it was as if it was his fifteenth Chai Society dinner. One custom at these Shabbats, as I would come to learn, was for guests to stand up in the middle of the meal and start talking about a particular point of inquiry or Biblical passage. This seemed to inevitably happen right when I was about to take a spoonful of something delicious–like potato kugel. To my great shock, on that first night, Cory himself actually stood up to speak on the topic at hand. I don’t think he mixed in any Hebrew phrases, but it wouldn’t shock me if he had. Cory became an integral and beloved member of Chai Society, and I daresay that if it wasn’t the beginning, it certainly didn’t dampen his political stirrings.
Which brings us to the present day. Reading the story this morning of Cory dashing into that burning building, my heart at first sank. [Note that Special People, rather than being joyous at good news, often wonder if they would’ve been able to do something similar and feel jealous]. Yet remember FOOS (Fellow Occupiers of Specialland) that we can control how we think, and little by little, we must if we are to take on Specialness. Once I caught my Special self and set it aside for the moment, I started to listen to a clearer voice, and started to think about the lessons we could take.
Thinking about other people, and their welfare, whether it’s a friend, a relative, or a neighbor dying of smoke inhalation on her second floor, is a GREAT way to overcome Specialness, because it gets your mind off yourself.
Being in the Moment is also something we Special People must strive for constantly. As if we’re in the fire and we must act. There isn’t time to stew, to wonder, to rue, to fear, but rather we must tap into a much more intuitive, action-based self. This is how even amidst the burning building, Cory remained calm.
Oh we’ll still envy Cory. We’ll wonder how achievements seem to follow him like a glistening cloud of dew, while we are constantly courting Specialness. We’ll resent his succeeding at every single thing he does. But we’ll try to learn from his actions too–how late one night, while not worrying about whether he was Special or not, Cory let his instincts guide him and did the most amazing thing you can ever do: save a person’s life.