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Am I Rude?

Am I Rude?

How an Insult Led to Growth

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“You are the most despicable, disgraceful and rude person! I think you need to change your attitude, and I wish you luck!” And then she hung up the phone.

Ouch! Upon hearing this voicemail message from a woman whom I had never met, I felt misunderstood and unfairly blamed. I wanted desperately to explain myself and my position to her. I looked for her e‑mail address in order to respond.

Blinking away the tears, I thought of the teaching of the sages: Those who are embarrassed and do not embarrass, who hear their faults and don’t return the rebuke . . . are like the sun going forth in its glory (Talmud, Shabbat 88b). I took a deep breath.

I felt misunderstood and unfairly blamedThe phone call was apparently triggered by a short conversation I’d had with this woman regarding a gemach (free loan service) that I organize for our community. Upon hearing about my service, the woman had contacted me, wishing to donate some items—strollers, cribs and car seats. I had told her during our 56-second conversation that at this time I could not accept any more stuff, as the bedroom where I store the items is completely full.

As part of that 56-second conversation, the woman assured me that her cribs and car seats were in impeccable condition, and said that she could not understand why I was not taking them. I began to explain to her again about the lack of space in the room, but the woman yelled, “Why are you screaming at me?” and then hung up the phone.

I didn’t think my tone had been raised, but I’d had the conversation on a cell phone, and you can never be sure of the volume when it comes to a cell phone. And yes, I do tend to have a loud voice. Still, her message seemed somewhat extreme—what with the name-calling and angry voice.

Well, there is a motto that “it’s better to be loved than to be right . . . apologize.” So I sat down at my computer (I’d found her e‑mail address) and, in a carefully composed e‑mail, I expressed my regrets at not being able to accept her donations at this time, and my appreciation to her for wanting to contribute. I also referred her to an acquaintance of mine who also has a gemach, and suggested that perhaps that person would take her items. I apologized for our miscommunication and my loud voice.

The reply: “Miriam, I am not impressed. You are trying to rationalize away your rudeness to me this morning. People are donating out of the kindness of their hearts, and you treated me disgracefully! I have a sour taste in my mouth for the Orthodox community in general right now! I will not deal with any of your friends or give any of you any business, but rather with others who have decent manners!”

I wrote another quick e‑mail to her, explaining that this gemach is a not-for-profit organization that I run out of my own home. But another fast and furious reply bounced into my inbox: “Please do not e‑mail me again. I really do not care about your business and how you run it. You were rude and disgraceful to me this morning . . .”

Those who are embarrassed and do not embarrass, who hear their faults and don’t return the rebuke . . .

Maybe she is right. That must be why I’m so bothered by thisMaybe I really could let her insults go in one ear and out the other.

But the woman’s words rang in my ears that entire day, and into the night.

Maybe she is right. That must be why I’m so bothered by this. Yes, I’m too abrupt. I need to tone down my voice. Maybe I should find out her home address and send her an apology note in the mail. Maybe I’m not running the gemach properly? Maybe I should give it up altogether? Maybe this is a message for me . . .

And so began my process of righting the wrong. No, I did not contact the woman again; however, I made a spiritual accounting within myself. I began the process by thinking back to why I’d started the gemach in the first place, several years ago.

A friend of mine, a wonderful, kind woman from the other side of town, had been running the gemach up until then. Now she was giving it up, and she’d asked me to take over her items. I was inspired by this woman and others like her; they always seemed to have enough time for everyone, and were always bringing joy to others. I, too, wanted to do that. And so, I told my friend yes.

I began storing, loaning out, and taking returns and donations of various categories of baby gear. People borrowed for long-term periods, as well as for the short term. My phone was constantly ringing with those in need of my gemach, and I felt gratified to be providing the service.

But maybe—just maybe—I was experiencing burnout now? Maybe I was overdoing the do-gooder behavior, and was therefore becoming tired and frustrated . . . and sounding like it, too, especially over the phone?

Since I believe nothing happens for naught, and events are orchestrated from Above, after this incident I set out to modify my “business” of helping others. I made some amendments to my gemach’s policies and parameters. The following steps helped to prevent further burnout and misunderstandings between myself and my “clients.”

  • Setting limits and boundaries: I made up to set (and stick to!) specific hours during the week (listed on my answering machine) when I’d be available to answer questions regarding the gemach. No more 24/6 availability.
  • Control the mode of communication: I set up my answering machine to refer people to a gemach e‑mail address and website, so that people could contact me easily for quick questions. I also made sure to put information about the gemach, such as its rules and policies, what the gemach carries and what it accepts for donations, etc., on the website, thus eliminating the necessity for phone calls.
  • After this incident I set out to modify my “business” of helping othersRemember—this is a side activity: To remind myself of this, I decided that messages left on my machine would be returned in the evening or by the next day, but not necessarily immediately. This would allow my gemach work to fit within the time schedule I could allot for it.
  • A Meaningful Name: I chose to add to the existing name, to bring even more meaning and purpose to what I was doing. The gemach, “LA Baby Gear,” was given an additional name of Yad Aliza (The Hand of Joy), in memory of my daughter, Aliza Leah, of blessed memory, bat Chaim Shlomo, who died in infancy more than 25 years ago, a few days before Yom Kippur. It seemed apt to give the gemach a meaningful name.
  • Mindfulness: I made up that when speaking to or emailing people who use the gemach, I would pay extra attention to being friendly and pleasant at all times, to the best of my ability.

When we spread ourselves too thin, we don’t help anyone. By taking care of our own needs, and giving ourselves adequate personal time, we will be full enough to not only provide for others, but to do so with joy as well. And that, for sure, is the best act of kindness.

Miriam Hendeles is a Los Angeles music therapist for hospice patients, and a writer whose topics include her experiences and growth as a grandmother. Reprinted from Mazel Tov! It's a Bubby!, with permission from the publisher, Israel Bookshop Publications.
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Chris July 15, 2016

Well, I certainly am impressed with your process! What you described is so rarely engaged in that it is indeed like the sun going forth in its glory. In spite of repeated rejection, you decided to follow the teachings of Torah, which was courageous and unselfish, and led you to a place where you not only made your life and community work more orderly and productive, but you yourself developed a pleasantness that will of course spread to others. I know of people who do "good works" in the community, but think because they are doing something so "good" that they are entitled to act badly while they're doing it. You're story is very inspiring for what we need to do to achieve true righteousness: obeying HaShem in all things and showing kindness to our neighbors-even when it's not so easy. May you and your family be rewarded. Baruch HaShem! Reply

Eileen Old Town, FL May 3, 2016

While reading the story I recognized myself. I am a nurse. I worked critical care for 37 years and recently retired. I can recall more than once when my voice became louder than intended, when my temper shortened, and when I lost sight of my purpose. It was burnout for me. I had a need to stay around the unit all 12 of my hours on duty, afraid to leave afraid something might occur while I was gone. My breaks were used to maintain my caffeine high instead of taking a moment to breathe. It took me years to realize this behavior was self destructive and made it hard to care for others. I realized the patients I liked the most were those too sick to talk to me or know I was there, not at all like I once was.
I am finally able to do things I once enjoyed doing. I visit with people because I want to not because I have to...and they are responsive. I've come a long way but still have far to go.
Bravo for your insight into your behavior. To take care of others you must take care of you first. Reply

Bohemian Babushka crawfordville December 14, 2014

All things are blessings, even the slaps in the face. Bravo for finding the blessing and making your charity truly heartfelt not a selfimposed duty. Reply

Anonymous Carnegie August 6, 2014

You don't sound rude. It is sometimes that being concise and to the point (if unexpected) might be construed as rudeness. Maybe she built up something in her mind about what giving would feel like. Reply

chana Israel January 13, 2014

just reading this now, months later, without all the introspection and musings, maybe this woman is just plain meshuganah, and has some kind of personality disorder..move on, you did more than the right thing, writing twice w/ an apology no less -there are some people no matter what you do or say,they have some pathological need to misinterpret the reality to suit their twisted perspective and whereby remain in their stagnant unhealthy comfort zone. you do not have to be a part of that script, move on w/o the guilt. Reply

Anonymous Saint Petersburg July 21, 2013

This is an old trick played on private charities and small religious organisations by larger ones. She did the right thing, prevent burn out so when this happens again she will better deal with it and when she knows for sure she is in the right it wont bother her so much. Reply

Mimi Brooklyn NY March 13, 2013

Dear Miriam,
I think this woman was simply looking for trouble and had made up her mind to be offended by any means possible. From what you have recounted,I fail to find that you were rude or unkind at all. She seems to have been itching for a fight and you did not provide her one. Please do not spend anymore of your emotional energy on what is known as an emotional vampire. I suspect that what she really came for was an opportunity to drain you of your joy and not to donate anything of value to the gemach. Best wishes in your future endeavors. Reply

Boris Fernandina beach, Fl. January 11, 2013

Your behavior, attitude and writing was very uplifting to me and I suspect to many others. My guess is that you also gave thanks for being provided the opportunity for greater growth. Thank you for your insight. Reply

Lenlee Johannesburg SA January 8, 2013

I have just read your lovely insight.

It could not have come at a more

opportune time. Kol Hakavod! Reply

Karen Bresinger December 23, 2012

Although it sounds like you did not do something wrong, I commend you for looking inward. Why did this happen to you and not the other lady running a gmach? There is a lesson to be learned and I think you gave it some thought, had some great ideas, and shared it with others too!! Just blaming outside circumstances, which is the easy way out ( and more natural) leaves behind the idea of haschacha protis. You sound like a brave woman and I am inspired by your willingness to look at yourself. Reply

Lisa Lubbock Texa December 23, 2012

You are a wonderful Jew and an excellent example for all of us to follow. Thank you so much for your 'Hand of Joy'. May Hashem bless you and everything you do forever more!

Lisa H. Reply

Robin Washington State December 21, 2012

Thank you for turning a difficult situation into one of insight and growth and attention to the place of G-d in our lives. I admire how you took the insight of the persistence of the small, still voice inside yourself, went deeper and found the lesson and growth. Who knows why she behaved so, perhaps the perfect items were the result of a loss of her own child, we never know someone else's story. I hope you find comfort in the peace you have made for yourself in this situation, and how your story and insight teaches. Shabbat Shalom. Reply

Miriam December 21, 2012

Thanks everyone for your insightful, thoughtful and perceptive comments. May there be more shalom spread around our Nation. Reply

Susan December 21, 2012

What I see at work here is classic example of an encounter with people who are sometimes referred to as "glass toes"--determined to be insulted and offended in situations where there was no such intent, implacably unforgiving, and thoroughly willing to twist peacemaking efforts into further evidence of your wrongdoing. You (the author) clearly made a good-faith effort to appease this person, but to no avail. A timely reminder, perhaps, of why there is a general limit of three good-faith efforts to seek forgiveness! Reply

Anonymous Orlando, FL, USA December 20, 2012

Miriam - having read your story, I find it unlikely that you were rude. More likely the woman was over-sensitive or you unintentionally conveyed abruptness (perhaps due to burnout, as you describe).. Regardless, I find it refreshing that instead of dwelling without end on the question, you chose to thoughtfully consider what you were meant to learn from the experience. I hope to read more stories like this, because I believe it will encourage similar behavior among the readers (including myself). Reply

Andrea Schonberger University Place, WA via chabadpiercecounty.com December 19, 2012

You, dear lady, were not rude. You did your utmost several times to explain the situation and even made references to other gemachs that could accept her donations. She was itching for a fight and you were the unfortunate victim. So please don't make out like it was somehow your fault. Reply

Rachel Garber Phila December 19, 2012

It is possible that you raised your voice, I know mine tends to go up a few decibles when I am frustrated, when people are not listening to what I am saying. It is great that you are so set on self-examnation, but the problem is not with you. She was determined that you take her "perfect" donation, and when you tried to explain to her, over and over, she went on the offensive. She even brought in her "sour taste" for the Orthodox community, what has that to do with anything. I applaud you for setting limits as far as this gemach program is concerned, but you are too hard on yourself. You even sent her an email trying to apologize to her, she shut you down. She claimed that you tried to rationalize your behavior, I saw nothing like that at all. Hers was the disgraceful behavior. I wouldn't spend any more time worrying about her and HER rude behavior. In answer to you query, no you were not rude. Reply

Anonymous Israel December 19, 2012

Thanks! Reply

previous caregiver Tsfat, Israel December 17, 2012

B"H Great to read your article. I think this can be aptly applied to people in the caregiving field as well-where its important to remember that you have to "put on your oxygen mask before helping the person next to you"-that we want to help so much and that is great, but if we don't help ourselves as well we end up just hurting everyone. That's why Chesed sheb'Gevurah is the greatest form of chesed :) Good luck! Reply

Jennifer North Carolina December 17, 2012

I try to look at situations from different angles. After reading your article, it sounds like the other woman was the rude one. She also sounded arrogant, close-minded, unforgiving, and full of herself. Case in point - she wasn't really listening. Even after you explained that you had no more storage room, she still couldn't grasp why you couldn't take her cream of the crop baby items - it went right over her head. She chose to take it as a personal affront and made it all about her (How DARE you not take HER items!) After you sent her a note of apology, not only did she refuse to accept it, she interjected with more rudeness along with an "I'll show you" (and your entire community!) This woman has a very lofty opinion of herself - the personality type that is very hard to deal with, as they view themselves as perfect and without fault. You did your best, Miriam. It's a good lesson in human behavior, don't you think? Reply