So there we were, Barbara and I, on a two-week vacation to the Canadian Rockies.
The trip was exceeding even our high expectations; majestic mountains, roaring crystal rivers, emerald lakes in hanging valleys, and wildlife – bear, elk, deer, bighorn sheep, an elk that we thought was a moose (we never did see a moose) -a nature lover’s dream. Ma nora ma’asecha Hashem – How awe-inspiring are your works, God!
But as the days wore on, I unexpectedly found myself captivated by a different “life form.” I began to take note of the people we met along the way; non-Jews mostly – along the trails, in the parks, at the picnic tablesâ€¦.
And you know what I found? They were nice! I mean, really nice! They were open, friendly, pleasant, and engaging. Their children were polite, well mannered, and cooperative. And strangely enough, the more people I met, the more uncomfortable I became. Because I began to feel that in some ways, they are nicer than us.
Now I know what some of you are saying to yourselves. “Wow, the rabbi is skating on thin ice. He goes on a two-week vacation, meets a couple of people in passing, and returns to insult us.” So let me make some things abundantly clear from the outset: Our congregations are exemplary in so many ways. The extraordinary human resources and wealth of spirit that exist within them are incomparable. The personal support that we extend to each other at critical life moments, whether joyous or challenging, sets a standard toward which other faith communities can aspire. When the chips are down, there is no one I would rather be with than the members of our Jewish community.
I also recognize that my chance meetings with a series of people on vacation in the Canadian Rockies hardly qualify as a scientific survey of the non-Jewish world.
Nonetheless, this holiday season is a time for honest self appraisal. Let me, therefore, ask you a question. Don’t you sometimes feel that we Jews could use an attitude adjustment? Don’t you sometimes think, and I don’t know how else to put it, that we need to get over ourselves a bit?
The signs are readily apparent: How many of you in the service fields have come to me over the years and told me that you would rather deal with your non-Jewish customers than with Jews? How many of us have, in the public arena, from the shul to ShopRite, acted, or seen our coreligionists act, in ways that are a bit condescending, entitled, even pushy? And what about our children? Are we pleased with the way they talk to each other, to us, or to other adults?
If you are not convinced yet, try this little litmus test. Some of you may know the story of the El Al plane landing at Tel Aviv during Chanukah, in a year when Chanukah falls when it most often does. As the plane taxis toward the gate, the copilot announces over the loudspeaker: “Ladies and gentlemen, please stay in your seats. The plane is still moving; we have not yet reached the gates.” A few moments later, he says: “Ladies and gentlemen, once again, the plane is still moving. It is not safe. Please be considerate of yourselves and others, please remain in your seats. And a few moments later: “Ladies and gentlemen, stay in your seats!” Finally, he announces: “Ladies and gentlemen, I am pleased to tell you that we have arrived at the gate. To all of you who are standing, happy Chanukah! To all of you who are still seated, merry Christmas!”
The litmus test is: Could this story be true?
I almost feel as if there is an attitudinal veneer that blocks the basic goodness in our hearts from rising to the surface; a veneer that automatically kicks in, like a switch that’s been pulled, whenever we feel a bit stressed, tense, harried, or pushed.
The reasons for this phenomenon are potentially manifold: Perhaps we have been pushed so often and so long throughout our history that when we are given the opportunity, we naturally tend to push back. Perhaps we still feel a bit uncertain and vulnerable. Clearly many of us misinterpret our role as God’s chosen people to mean that we are inherently superior, rather than that we have greater responsibility. And to be honest, for some of us, it’s simply our affluence and our success that makes us feel that we can do anything or say anything with impunity. After all, there is no mitzvah to be nice. Six hundred thirteen commandments, and not one of them says outright that we have to be nice, right?
Wrong! Dead wrong!
During this holiday period, as we return to basics, let me tell you what one of our greatest scholars has to say about the mitzvot. Rav Abba bar Aivu, who is known within Talmudic literature simply as Rav (“teacher”), emphatically declares: “The sole purpose of the mitzvot is to refine mankind â€¦” He goes on to explain that our detailed performance of the mitzvot does not make a difference to God. It makes a difference to us. The mitzvot simply are created to refine us. To make us nice.
Let’s understand what this means. If we are punctilious in the performance of the mitzvot, yet that performance does not change us, refine us, make us better human beings, then the system simply isn’t working. If the performance of mitzvot doesn’t knock the chip off our shoulder; if it doesn’t bring us down a peg, by making us realize that we stand on equal footing with all human beings before an all-powerful God; if it doesn’t bring us up a notch, by making us recognize the majestic potential that lies within our souls – then we are not performing mitzvot properly. If the system of Jewish law does not produce nicer people, then something is desperately wrong.
There is no specific mitzvah to be nice, because the purpose of all the mitzvot is to make us better human beings.
Now you may say: “You know, the rabbi is right. This is all fine and good. How, however, can we act upon this knowledge? How can we break through our own, familiar, attitudinal veneer? I would like, therefore, to prescribe a simple exercise. This exercise is not mine. It was prescribed by the rabbis of the Talmud, centuries ago. Thankfully, they even hinged this drill upon an abundantly familiar biblical passage, so that it is very easy for us to remember:
“Ve’hahavta et Hashem Elokecha b’chol levavcha uv’chol nafshecha uv’chol me’odecha – And you shall love the Lord, your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mightâ€¦”
How, ask the rabbis, is it possible to “love God”? How can love apply to an entity that lies so far beyond our understanding? Among the answers they propose is the following powerful suggestion:
“And you shall love… That the name of heaven should become beloved through you.” That you should act in such a way that your very actions increase the awareness of and the love of God in this world. Others should see your behavior as a Jew and say: “How wonderful! What a mensch! If this is what Judaism produces, what a beautiful system it must be.”
So here’s the exercise: This year, every time you are about to lash out at the person next to you, every time you feel entitled to be rude, every time you become frustrated because the cashier at ShopRite (who is so obviously inferior to you in your mind, because she needs to work behind the counter to put herself/her children through college and you don’t) is too slow, every time you feel righteously entitled to criticize someone in your synagogue and you don’t feel the need to do so in a non-hurtful way (because you so obviously know better than the person you are about to criticize), every time you are about to be rough on your housekeeper (who is also so obviously lesser than you, although she is only doing the work that your grandmother once had to do for someone else; and there, but for the grace of God, go you).â€¦
Every time, stop and ask yourself: “Is this really what God wants? Is what I’m about to do or say going to increase God’s presence in this world? Are my actions or words going to enhance the appreciation of God’s will and the love for His word?”
If the answer is no, then don’t do it. Don’t say it. Period!
And, who knows, maybe if we stop and regularly ask ourselves these questions, we will succeed in being nicer to each other, to those with whom we regularly deal, to those whom we glancingly meet on the journey.
We will succeed in bringing out the innate goodness that lies in each of our hearts. We will fill the world with a bit more love and respect for the divine.
We will truly do “what God wants” and we will bring him naches.