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The Human Traffic Sign

The Human Traffic Sign

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I saw him this past spring as I was walking to the synagogue on a hot Shabbat morning in Los Angeles. He was standing at the entrance of a strip mall that I was passing, his front and back covered by identical, cumbersome cardboard signs advertising an absolutely fantabulous sale by one of the stores in the mall. He was still there a few hours later when I returned from the synagogue, several empty water bottles lying at his feet.

It got me thinking. Even if this person was being paid only minimum wage, it would almost certainly be more economical for the store owner to go to Staples and order a standard print sign. Why the need for the human advertisement?

Motorists were slowing to get a look; one even turned on his blinker and entered the mall’s next entranceThen again, when was the last time that a conventional sign really caught my attention? And as I looked at the busy thoroughfare, it was clear that many motorists were slowing to get a look; one even quickly turned on his blinker and entered the mall’s next entrance.

Apparently, living, breathing signs are worth the extra cost. I’m pretty sure that entrepreneurs wouldn’t be throwing out their hard-earned money on an unproven advertising gimmick.


In no less than four places, the Torah discusses the law of the “Cities of Refuge” (Exodus 21, Numbers 35, Deuteronomy 4 and 19), the safe havens established for those who were guilty of manslaughter, where they could escape the wrath of a vengeful next of kin.

Perhaps the reason why the Torah chooses to repeat this law several times is due to one of the powerful and eternal lessons this mitzvah teaches.

We are all haunted and pursued by past indiscretions, as well as unhealthy and unspiritual tendencies. But there is a “safe haven” to which we can escape and find serenity. As our sages tell us (Talmud, Makkot 10a), “The words of Torah are a refuge.” Through thoroughly immersing ourselves—“exiling” ourselves—within the teachings of the Torah, we are granted the wherewithal to successfully fend off all the impulses that hound us.

In Deuteronomy 19:3, the Torah instructs us to “prepare the roads” that leads to the cities of refuge. The Talmud (ibid.) explains that it is imperative upon the community to ensure that the roads leading to the cities remain maintained and unobstructed, and furthermore, that every crossroads must have a prominent sign directing the person to the closest miklat (refuge).

We need to be signs. For our chance acquaintances, for our friends, for our children . . .The Rebbe explained the contemporary lesson that this detail of the law offers. It is our duty, the Rebbe says, to stand at life’s crossroads with a large arrow sign, and loudly proclaim to all: “This is the way to refuge. Here’s the Torah. Here’s how you live it. Here’s how you find peace and tranquility.”

We need to be signs. For our chance acquaintances, for our friends, for our children.

We can go to Staples and print up posters. We can buy books for our children that teach them the proper path; we can use wonderful words and homilies to persuade them of the beauty of Torah.

Or we can be living signs.

Yes, it requires a deeper commitment. It could mean standing in the heat for hours.

But living signs cause heads to turn like no other means of advertisement can.

Rabbi Naftali Silberberg is a writer, editor and director of the curriculum department at the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute. Rabbi Silberberg resides in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife, Chaya Mushka, and their three children.
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Geoffrey Jacks Lakewood, CA. August 31, 2014

Great Wisdom! Reply

Michel Peres Bay Harbour Islands, Florida via theshul.org August 29, 2014

An Appropriate Message for An Appropriate Subject I just relocated back down to South Florida after having lived in Washington D.C. I honestly do not consider myself a big sinner. I had one fiancé which I am glad I chose not to marry. I have barely dated. I remain chaste although may have exchanged some physical connection with someone while in D.C. I know it's wrong to compare, but I have seen other people commit sin a million times worse. Junior high children or high school may have done what I did and that is why I can't seem to figure out why I am publicly being shamed and marked so horribly in public as if though I am paying for the far worse of other people with my little sin. That's haunting me to today. I said in Costco today that the non Jewish Orthodox world, the secular one picks at wounds or slanders and I can't live in it peacefully. I liked the person I shared affections with; I thought I did. After I saw the real him, I regretted it. I've been trying to move; I forgave myself. I don't want to keep paying for others Reply

Leonard Allen Madison Wisconsin August 26, 2014

Thank you for this touching reminder of the one who was the voice crying in the wilderness to the hunger and thirsting who did not even know they were needy. Reply

Danny Masri gainesville August 25, 2014

Holy ordinances Good story line...but......I am in an industry that is prevented from signage due to municipal ordinances.... the loophole is the human sign...In the end by default it does create a degree of holiness though. Reply

Daniel Masri Modiin Israel August 11, 2013

Embarrassment protection I also heard a Torah that placing many signs removes the stigma as those needing the city of refuge and those that don't are sharing the same roads. Just there destination is different. Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma August 22, 2012

"Signs" of the times I love what Jo wrote above. I love it that Avenue contains AV which is for Father and that Rue for Street in French has an echo of Ru as in Ruah, for soul, breath. I see in words a connected story and I see it also, as so beautifully written, in people themselves as signs. Surely WE are the peace sign, the Y. And the why of life, the despairing why and the joyous why of being here at all, is contained by our own stories, stories that only a master storyteller could have scripted.

Even "Seinfeld" the comic in cosmic. All names and naming are significant in this, a story that is the Everything Bagel. Einstein knew it existed. And it does. And there is also a bagel company named, curiously, Einstein's. Who wrote this script?

I come here because WE know. It's ALL G_D. Reply

Stephen Fredericton August 21, 2012

Living Signs
Thank you for this much needed reminder. Reply

Jo McIntyre Newberg, OR September 5, 2011

Human signs Actually, human signs are more effective. A local pizza restaurant hired a young man who had asked for the job. The restaurant owner had had no idea of using a human sign. but the young man did a wonderful job for his new employer. He smiled, danced, waved and generally seemed to be having a good time. The restaurant's business boomed. There was even a story about it in our local newspaper.
What do we learn from this? Perhaps that we pay attention to positive messages delivered by happy people. Reply

ruth housman marshfield, ma September 2, 2011

re above misleading sign it could be there was a reason for this which might become clear later. I see that the entire story , vast cosmic, and personal is orchestrated by G-d. Reply

Anonymous Cherry Grove, Alberta CA via chabadedmonton.org September 2, 2011

We can be the sign that leads to Torah I think that being a human sign means, that people see quickly where to turn when in need of refuge. My daughter turned to a fellow Jew, assuming she would find encouragement and comfort but what she found was confusion since that particular Jewish Woman was An Atheist. Our sign should be clear, it should not be confusing. We should express with every ounce of ourselves that we know where to find Torah. Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma August 31, 2011

there are signs everywhere The universe is strewn with signs and double meanings. Some catch the arrow that is within the words, We deliver for you. Some don't. It's elusive and it's also allusive, because I think of what's Divine, when I read this sign.

The road we travel, daily, is strewn with signs. Look at them carefully, because they do define, in real ways, the very routes we travel in life itself. And I say, the best of signs, has got to be, in the bicycle lane, and that is Share The Road.

We have, no exit, detour, bumps in the road, sharp curve ahead, dead end. Start looking and see how these signs do apply to all of our lives. Life is a road, and when you take a detour, you never know what's ahead, it could be, something so beautiful, you are glad you took That fork, and not, the other.

Sometimes, some little comment made by anyone, a person on the road, a man begging for alms, can change your entire life. They are also, our signposts. Reply

Anonymous Adelaide, Australia August 29, 2010

I'm with the Rabbi! We are much more likely to pay attention to some message that seems to come with some personal recommendation. Reply

Flinkstein LONDON, UK August 14, 2010

The Human Traffic Sign Manchester in the UK, the original Sin City, was a refuge city where every fleeing knave, scoundrel and wizard such as Dee and Kelly was given immunity from prosecution within the city walls. Reply

Anonymous Camarillo, CA August 12, 2010

The facts presented here are completely wrong The store owner could not have gone to Staples, gotten a stadard print sign, and put it there, unless there was a human to hold it.

In the U.S., there are a host of laws that restrict where signs can be. Some cities in California (where this story takes place)have a limit on the number of signs by the street that each strip mall can have, sometimes fewer than the number of businesses in the strip mall. Elsewhere, zoning codes require that tall signs (and even flagpoles) that are stuck in the ground must be set back a minimum distance from the edge of the street, which limits visiblity. Placing a sign on a vehicle or having it held by a person allows the store owner to get around the legal restrictions.

It has nothing to do with whether "living" signs are more effective. It is simply a matter of exploiting a loophole in secular law that restricts putting signs in the ground but does not restrict carrying them. Reply

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