I don’t know about you, but I was gripped by that viral video of people fighting over toilet paper in the supermarket. It wasn’t so much the fighting, but more the refusal of the people hoarding vast numbers of rolls in their trolley to give one pack — she just wanted one— to the lady who had none.
What on earth is wrong with people?
Now, I know that hoarding of basic goods is a classic response to a feeling of loss of control. There have been academic papers on it. So I get that what the stockpilers were hoarding wasn’t toilet paper, it was reassurance. People are scared. I think being scared is an understandable reaction. I think being worried is rational.
But it was striking that this need, this desire for reassurance, made the hoarders blind to someone else’s needs.
And all of it led me to think about our sense of obligation to others. Let’s start with this. Almost certainly, the hoarders were stocking up for th eir close family, not just for themselves. So the purchase wasn’t entirely selfish. They probably thought of themselves as looking after their relatives. Caring for others. Doing their duty. Though it didn’t look like it, they may even have felt virtuous.
Now imagine that the woman asking for one pack of rolls from their laden trolley had not been a stranger, as she appeared to be. Imagine she had been a friend. Maybe even only a mild acquaintance. It is vastly more likely that the hoarders would have relented in those circumstances. Perhaps they might even have parted with two packs. A fight would have been much less likely to break out.
Or imagine something else. That the hoarders were asked to participate in a discussion about a fair allocation of the toilet rolls. An abstract discussion. It is likely that they would have agreed that their rolls should be shared, because they could imagine a situation in which the other woman got there before them and left them with no paper.
But if this scheme was agreed to, it would probably need heavy law enforcement to ensure it was abided by. Calls on social media for people to “grow up” won’t work.
I say all this because it exposes the reality of co-operation. In the abstract we have all sorts of warm and fuzzy ideas about caring and sharing. But in practice things can work out rather differently.
We are, unfortunately, quite self-centred but our sense of obligation stretches to our families. And beyond that to our friends and acquaintances. We can build a better society where people share and don’t fight, but these are the building blocks.
When asked about God, I always answer that I believe life is about more than just us, that there is something more. That we have an obligation to others and to love others. But that this needs to mean something concrete. And for me, the Jewish community provides a starting point.
In this crisis (and it is a crisis, as much as some people wish to think it is a media induced panic) I think Judaism can’t provide two things. The first is just a constant ethical reminder about obligation to others. I hope that if I ever found myself being asked by a lady for one pack of toilet paper I would think of being a Jew just to remind me to share.
But the other thing is to bind me to a community that feels for each other and meets each other’s need. A part of the widening circle of obligation.
We are going to have to keep our charities going when there are no events to raise money at, our caterers going when business has collapsed, our playgroups going, our care homes going, our Jewish education going, our elderly congregants going, our synagogues going. We are going to need each other as never before.
I am not arguing, not for a second am I arguing, that we shouldn’t attend to our elderly neighbours if they aren’t Jewish. On the contrary. I am saying that if we are strong as a community we will be able to be there for others.
Judaism, our community, is a building block.
Daniel Finkelstein is Associate Editor of The Times