Every summer when the weather heats up and sane people take refuge inside their apartments, I breathe a sigh of relief when I switch on the air conditioner. Not only for the instant blast of cold air, but also for the sense of satisfaction I get when I hear the whir and hum of the motor coming off my living room porch. But, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me start at the beginning of my story.
Once upon a time, in the city of Jerusalem, there lived a family. A normal, typical family that you might find living anywhere. There were a father, a mother, and eight children. There were fifteen other families living in their apartment building, and they had a good relationship with their neighbors. Some neighbors were of the “hi, can I borrow some milk?” variety, while others were of the friendly nod and a smile genre. One day this family decided that the time had come to invest in central air conditioning. Careful thought, frugal budgeting, and thorough research into the various models resulted in a call to Avi, the cooling system expert.
“Avi, this is Chavi Aarons. My sister, Esther Kahan, recommended you very highly. We’re interested in putting in central air conditioning in our home. Yes, I know it’s only February, but I wanted to beat the summer rush. Fine, I’ll see you Monday.”
Avi inspected the Aarons apartment. “All right, Mrs. Aarons. I can fit you in in about two weeks. In my opinion, the best place to install the unit would be off of your utility porch, next to the bathroom. That would make most efficient use of the space you have.” He described how he would build a drop ceiling in the bathroom to hide the pipes, and would run tubes and construct air vents in the bedrooms and other living areas. His professional manner impressed the Aarons family, and they were soon negotiating the price.
“Just think- no gasping in front of antiquated fans to get a bit of relief from the heat this summer,” the children gloated.
“We’re only the second family in our building to get air conditioning,” pointed out one of the children. “We’ll invite everyone here to cool off on hot days,” generously predicted another.
Mrs. Aarons laughed. “I think you’re getting a little carried away. It will be months before we have to consider sweltering temperatures. It’s not even Purim yet,” she pointed out.
The months passed, and that summer of 2004 was a record breaker. Temperatures climbed regularly into the high 90’s, and Chavi Aarons blessed her mother repeatedly for insisting that they install air conditioning.
“Chavi, do yourself a favor. Why suffer so much in the heat? You’ll see what a difference it makes in your quality of life,” Chavi’s mother would gently prod her.
The torrid weather continued well into September. It was Succos, when Chavi got an unexpected knock on her door.
“I need to talk to you and your husband.” Mrs. Klein, their downstairs neighbor, had a hard, unpleasant look on her face. Chavi felt a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. Had one of the children had a fight with one of the Klein kids? Visions of broken windows and damaged property flitted rapidly through her mind.
“Uh, I’ll go call my husband. I think he’s outside in the succa.”
Mrs. Klein stood belligerently in the living room, one hand on her hip.
“I’ll get straight to the point. Your air conditioner has been driving us crazy. I’ve suffered the entire summer from the awful noise the motor makes, but I haven’t said a word. But, now, over succos, it has become unbearable. We can’t enjoy a meal in our succa without the racket of that machine. You’ve got to get rid of it!” Chavi and her husband were dumbstruck. They had realized that the unit was positioned outside, over her garden, but it had never occurred to them that it might disturb her. The Aarons lived on the second floor, one floor above the Kleins. They had always enjoyed cordial relations with their neighbor, although they were by no means close friends. Chavi was pained that she had been disturbing her neighbor so disagreeably the entire summer. She ran to turn off the air conditioner.
“I’m so sorry. We’ll certainly try to find a solution,” promised Mr. Aarons. He retreated back to the succa, while Chavi uncomfortably showed Mrs. Klein out.
“What are we going to do?” Yossi, the Aarons’s fourteen-year-old son asked. He had witnessed the entire scene and was worried. “Don’t we have a right to use an air conditioner if we want to?
“Yes, but not by causing others aggravation,” his mother answered. “We’ll find a way around this problem, don’t worry.” Her confident words belied the troubled look on her face.
That evening Chavi struggled with her conflicting feelings. She recalled, with some asperity, the many times she had been forced to close her bedroom window throughout the long, hot, shabbos afternoons. The neighbor’s children played riotous games of ball and tag in their garden, and the loud voices and shouts had disturbed her weekly shabbos nap. Repeated requests for quiet during the accepted rest hours of 2:00 till 4:00 fell on deaf ears.
“Listen, it’s our private garden. The kids need somewhere to play,” countered Mr. Klein. “All right, I’ll tell them to keep the noise level down,” he promised, somewhat abashed by her exasperated expression. But it never seemed to help much. The children would start off quietly enough, then gradually their voices would escalate to a low roar that never failed to infuriate Chavi. “This is so inconsiderate,” she would fume. “Why can’t they keep their kids indoors in the afternoon, like I do?” Left with no choice, she would close her bedroom window, blocking out not only the noise, but also any stray wisps of air that might cool off the hot, stuffy room.
Confusing thoughts chased each other like pesky flies, droning provocatively in her ear. By the following morning, her decision was made.
“Avi, we have a serious problem. Please come over,” Chavi Aarons requested the week following Succos. Succinctly explaining the problem to the technician, she waited for his suggestion of an alternate location for the machine.
“Mrs. Aarons, I’ve installed hundreds of air conditioning units, and this is the first time I’ve ever heard of such a complaint. They have no legal standing at all to demand that you move the unit.”
“I realize that, but that isn’t the issue. We must move it. I cannot possibly run the air conditioner when I know that it disturbs someone else.” Her voice was soft, yet a thread of steel ran through her words. Avi shrugged. “Fine, it’s your money.” He examined the bedroom windows, and discarded each one as a possible alternative. “No, it’s too far,” he muttered. “I would have to change all the piping, ridiculous.” Measuring tape in hand, he checked the living room porch.
“This is the only solution I see,” he said briskly. “It’s still not a perfect answer, but it’s the best I can come up with for you. You’ll lose about 5% efficiency, but you probably won’t even feel the difference.” Chavi was distressed. The unit would jut out from the wall, an offensive eyesore on her sunny porch.
“All right, if that’s how it has to be. Just go ahead and do it,” she instructed. Two hours and 1500 shekel later…
“It’s so ugly,” pronounced one teenaged daughter.
“I’m going to bump my head on it every time I play on the porch,” moaned another child.
“It’s all a question of how you look at it,” pondered Mr. Aarons. “To me, it’s beautiful.” The children gaped at their father, stunned by his words.
“Yes, it is beautiful,“ he repeated emphatically. “We didn’t have to move the air conditioner. We weren’t obligated to by halacha. It’s behavior that is lifnim mi’shurat ha’din (beyond the letter of the law). Every time I see that unit on the porch, it won’t upset me. On the contrary, it’s an object of infinite value, since we elevated it to the status of a mitzvah.”
“I guess so,” Chavi agreed hesitantly. “Um, maybe it’s not so ugly, after all,” she conceded.
It took a little longer for the rest of the family to adjust their point of view. As the days, then weeks passed, fewer complaints were heard about the inconvenience of having the unit on the porch. Gradually, it underwent a metamorphosis that transformed it into an object of pride and satisfaction.
And that pretty much explains why pressing the remote switch that activates the air conditioner in my home gives me so much pleasure. It’s not every home that can boast an appliance that connects them so readily to spiritual reward. I like to think of it as my modest contribution to enhancing that well-known commandment of Love Your Neighbor.
Sheila Segal teaches in a women’s seminary in Israel, where she has been living for the past 23 years. She enjoys writing in her spare time.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.