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Street Smarts

Specific, Meaningful, Action-oriented, Realistic, and Time-bound


AS the entire intense period of teshuvah reaches its climax at Ne’ilah, it’s noteworthy that we invoke in the final prayer, “Atah nosein yad l’poshim v’yeminchah peshutah l'kabel shavim — You give a hand to sinners, and Your right hand is extended to those who return.” A few lines later, we again say, “You desire the return of the wicked, and You don’t want them to die,” and then we proceed to recite four additional pesukim that all affirm that same theme.

We might have thought after an entire Elul, followed by the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah, which are then capped by a Yom Hakippurim, it would be obvious beyond all doubt that Hashem wishes for nothing more than for His creations to return all the way home to Him. And yet, in these last moments of the season of teshuvah, we’re quoting pesukim one after another as if we need to be convinced of this truth.

It seems, perhaps, that the thing holding us back from finally, truly repenting and throwing ourselves into Hashem’s open arms (kivyachol) is that deep down, we still have a hard time believing that Hashem would want to accept us back after the way we’ve sullied ourselves, that we could possibly be worthy of His hand being outstretched and beckoning to us.

There’s a human analog to this idea, too, in the uncertainty many of us have about whether we’re worthy of another’s attention and beneficence. A study in the September issue of the journal Psychological Science reports on recent large-scale experiments that yielded the conclusion that people who need help from others consistently underestimate how willing both friends and strangers are to assist, as well as how good the helpers feel afterward.

The experiments involved both simple requests, like asking someone to take a picture of them in a botanical garden, to things that were a bit more of an “ask,” such as writing a letter of recommendation for graduate school. Almost invariably, those who’d asked for help believed that their helpers would be less willing to assist than the helpers actually were. Dr. Xuan Zhao, a Stanford University researcher who coauthored the study, explains its results simply: “Helping makes people feel better.”

But the fact that people underestimate others’ readiness to help means they’re less likely to ask for that help. As Zhao put it, “These kinds of expectations in our heads can create barriers that might not be warranted.” It was that common hesitation to ask for help that led University of Michigan business professor Wayne Baker to author a book entitled All You Have to Do Is Ask: How to Master the Most Important Skill for Success, in which he sets forth what he calls the “SMART” system. This means that when asking someone for assistance, a person should make sure his request is: Specific, Meaningful, Action-oriented, Realistic, and Time-bound.


PROFESSOR BAKER’S “Smart” approach came to mind the other day when a young fellow I know who’s involved in kiruv on a major Boston, Massachusetts campus shared with me a recent experience of his. His outreach group has Shabbos meals that sometimes draws hundreds of students, which necessitates borrowing chairs from a local gemach.

He had loaded a large pile of chairs from the previous week’s event into his SUV to return them to the gemach, and although this prevented the rear trunk door from fully closing, he decided to drive slowly toward his destination, hoping to make it there without incident.

It was not to be. As he proceeded up Chestnut Hill Avenue, a busy Boston street, the door flew open and out came chairs — 15 of them clattering into the middle of the bustling thoroughfare. He quickly put the car in park and jumped out to round up the chairs strewn all about.

But as he did so, he realized someone else had pulled his car to the side of the road and had run over to lend a hand — two very large hands, actually, belonging to a young black fellow who looked to be about six-foot-four and about 220 pounds.

This kiruv rabbi knows his sports and was surprised to recognize his helper as a pro basketball player, a point guard for the hometown Boston Celtics. And not just any player, either, but a standout one, recently named the National Basketball Association’s Defensive Player of the Year. It probably shouldn’t surprise that he’s also a two-time winner of the NBA’s Hustle Award, an energetic team player who’s known for diving for loose balls and defending against opposing players taller than him.

It was just a simple kindness on a Boston street, but there’s something impressive about it. The value of a good deed, after all, has to be assessed in its context. This one was performed by a 28-year-old star who was instrumental in his team making (albeit losing) this year’s NBA championships.

He’s also a very wealthy young man, with a multi-year contract for over $75 million, and gets lots of adoring attention wherever he goes. Even as he was helping load the chairs, passing cars slowed down to enable their passengers to wave and call his name.

All that fame and money can go to someone’s head, perhaps making him not the most likely candidate to stop his car on a busy street and jump out to help a stranger. But he did, in a way which was indeed specific, meaningful, action-oriented, realistic, and time-bound. And that just proves the point of Professor Baker, creator of the SMART program: People really do want to help and feel good when they take action. You just have to know how to ask.

I know the story’s true, because the kiruv rabbi is my son. And the Celtics star who helped him? His name is Marcus Smart.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 930. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com)

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