Day 32: Restoring our Humanity

Have we forgotten our humanity?

I realize the question is provocative but it is meant to stimulate introspection.

Almost every day there is a call in our country for civil debate because the tenor of dialogue has gotten too negative and personal. It is a world of Gotcha.

In the Jewish community, we struggle to find ways to construct frameworks for understanding despite ideological differences. There is bullying in schools. The Jewish community is not immune. How many times have we seen relationships break down and lives destroyed, organizations torn apart because of the tone of an email or face book post?

We have not lost our humanity but we are in danger of losing our menschlechkeit.

I think part of our challenge is our definition of success. We focus on winning and losing.

Think about it for a minute. When coming to a parent teacher conference, the first question we ask is how is our child doing. The answer we expect is whether he/she is receiving an A, B or C. Is he or she at the top, middle or bottom of the class? What we really should be asking is “What kind of child am I raising? Is he/she kind, thoughtful and caring?”

I am sure you are nodding your heads in agreement but inside we have trouble living this message. We get caught up in the wrong definitions of success.

I read a heartening article recently about the efforts of Dominic Randolph, headmaster at Riverside Country School an intensely competitive school. He shared his belief that the push on tests in schools misses some serious parts of what it means to be a successful human being. He advocates for character building as the vital ingredient to insure the “good life” one that was not just happy but meaningful. Self control and grit – defined as unwavering dedication to achieve a mission- are at least, if not more, important than intellect.

This attitude though is considered radical. It is not mainstream.

My father would often tell me that one of the great benefits of Judaism is that the Torah serves as a guide for life’s moral questions. People send a lot of time searching for a path in ambiguous world but the Torah’s eternal value system provides direction and clarity.

The goal of Rosh Hashanah is to recalibrate our behavior. It is a time to turn a topsy turvy world back on its head. Too often we excuse lack of menschlechkeit with a statement like – what else do you expect, that is his personality. We excuse name calling by saying a person is passionate. In truth, we have lost our way. Judaism never condones dismissing someone else simply to get ahead or to prove that one is right.

Of course, there are a lot of good people in the world including all of us sitting right here. Do we fully appreciate the extent of Judaism’s stand on humanity and do everything we can restore in this value in our community.

Let’s examine Judaism’s approach the primacy of character.

As one of my mentors posed many years ago – what comes first – Menschlechkeit or G-dliness?

It is not a simple question. The cornerstone of our faith is belief in G-d. Yet, upon examination we will learn that Judaism stands on the side of being a mensch.

We are familiar with the passage in the Talmud about Hillel who when approached by a potential convert to summarize the essence of Judaism, he replied – Love your neighbor as yourself.

In fact, the Midrash teaches that one must first be a mensch and afterwards fear G-d. The quality is demanded of a person even before he acquires the Torah. As our tradition states: Derech Eretz (the Hebrew equivalent of mensclechkeit) comes before the Torah.

In fact the founder of our faith, Avraham, was chosen not because of his belief system alone. Yes, he discovered G-d in the world. However, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, the Netziv, writes that the virtue of the patriarchs and matriarchs lay in the way they behaved towards idolaters. In addition to being lovers of G-d and righteous people, our ancestors were straight and honest. They conducted themselves with the nations of the world, even the ugliest idolaters, with love and they sought their welfare.

How can we forget Abraham beseeching G-d on behalf of people of Sodom?

The Torah writes about Abraham – God loves him because he taught his descendants to do Tzedaka and Righteousness.

In one of the most moving passages in the Talmud, we see G-d as a model for being a mensch.

The Talmud relates that the town of Shiloh and Migrav were adjacent to each other. The smoke of the sacrifices in Shiloh emanating from the holy tabernacle comingled with the smoke from the idolatrous temple in Migrav. The angels cried out to G-d – how sacrilegious – You must remove the smoke of the idolaters. G-d responded – Not only do they offer sacrifices but they also bake Migrav– If I do put out the smoke, what will happen to the wayfarers who purchase bread made in the fires of Migrav. I appreciate you protecting my honor but what about my children?

We live in a world so polarized by ideological differences, we forget our common humanity.

Hillel and Shammai disagreed vehemently but their children married each other. They did not allow their ideological conflicts to taint their relationships.

As we stand on the threshold of a new year, what can we do to bring a little more menschlechkeit to our world?

I believe the three central themes of the Rosh Hashanah Service offer a strategy for reaffirming our humanity and G-d willing the awakening we need to act with more menschlechkeit.

They are the majesty, medium and memory of being of a mensch.

The Malchiyot is the majesty. The Shofarot is the medium. The Zichronot are the memory.

What does it mean to accept G-d as King –as a Melech?

Is it enough to state energetically “I believe in one G-d”?

A declaration is nice but our deeds are what counts. The first very law in the Jewish code reminds us of authentic acceptance of G-d as king. We accept the Almighty when we behave in a way that does not compartmentalize our relationship. G-d stands before us always. Whether in private or in public, we must act with respect and goodness.

One of my friends reminds his children that the test of the morality of a choice is whether they think their parents would be proud of their actions. It is wise advice. Human nature is to behave differently in public than in private. If no one is watching or we do not think we will be noticed, we let our guard down.

What constitutes the profanation of G-d’s name? Rav said: For example, if I were to buy meat from a butcher without immediately paying for it. In other words, Rav would act stringently and pay the butcher at once, even though there was no obligation to do so since he thought that if he failed to follow the stringency it would be a desecration of G-d’s name. Observing the Torah is not only about following the Torah but conducting oneself in a way that is pleasing to people.

But majesty is much more than fear of G-d’s presence. It is empowerment. When I know that I am ultimately accountable to G-d and G-d is by my side, I will have the inner courage to say and do what is right. Standing fast and acting like a mensch may bring momentary angst but more importantly lasting glory to the majesty of G-d.

Second, we must remember the medium of being a mensch. Here I am referring to the way we communicate. Ethics of our Fathers thousands of years ago predicted the challenge years ago. Do not make statement that will you think will not be heard for eventually it will be heard. Even before the advent of the internet, our Sages understood the lasting impact of speech.

One press of a button and we can deconstruct a relationship. It is nearly impossible to convey one’s feeling, context in an email. Time and again I have seen emails misconstrued and misunderstood. King Solomon wrote that life and death are in the power of speech.

It gets worse. We press the reply all or forward button much too casually.

To be a mensch means to be sensitive to the medium. We may hide behind the anonymity of the internet but if we would not say something to someone’s face, we should not say it at all.

In every encounter with another human being, we can be a mensch. Simply saying hello or not can make a difference. One day recently as I was walking into shul, I glided by someone to whom I normally say hello. A few minutes later when I shared my warm greeting he said to me – whew – I thought I did something wrong since you did not immediately say Hi. How careful we have to be….

The Mishna in Ethics of our Fathers states: Rabbi Yishmael said: Receive everyone cheerfully. Maimonides expounds on the idea. Receive every person, lowly and grand, free and slave, every member of the human race with JOY and HAPPINESS. This goes beyond the statement of Shammai who says greet everyone with a pleasant face. We are obligated to greet people with joy and happiness.

Finally, we cannot forget the memory of being a mensch.

How do we want to be remembered? If we reverse engineer our lives and think of the long term consequences of our actions, we will be inspired to act with sincerity and kindness today.

Every day is endowed with infinite choices and possibilities. Each one will shape our future. The legacy of our deeds and interpersonal relationships will endure forever.

The world may be adrift but each of us can restore our humanity one person and action at a time.

What will be remembered for?

Think for a moment about Ben Zvi, the president of Israel after Chaim Weizmann. Ben Zvi was called to the presidency after Weizmann died from his small cottage in Jerusalem where he has been living with his wife Rachel.

On the day he was made President, he returned home to find a sentry marching in front of his home. Ben Zvi asked what the fellow was doing there and he replied that he was sent by the Chief of Staff as an honor guard before the home of the President.

Rubbing his head in amazement, Ben Zvi entered his house. It was winter in Jerusalem and the night was cold. After a few minutes, he came out and said, “Look here, it is cold tonight. Won’t you come in and at least have some hot tea?” The soldier replied, “I cannot leave my post. Orders are orders.” Foiled, Ben Zvi reentered his house. After a while he turned to his wife and asked her to make some tea; then he went again and greeted the soldier. “I have an idea. You go in and have tea and I will stand outside with your gun and take your post.”

Such menschlechkeit defines the Jew! The Talmud comments that when a person has compassion for humanity, it is a sign that he is a descendant of Abraham.

We are blessed with a wonderful community. I was recently out of town at a Bar Mitzvah. I was approached by someone who heard I was from Stamford. She could not express to me enough how she loved our community and the shul. She praised our warmth and openness.

Let us not forget that the Talmud begins with ideology. The topic is the recitation of the Shema. What is the last mishna? It states that there is not greater vessel to bring blessing to the world than peace.

Perhaps the word is not menschlechkeit but menschlechkeit for our light can illuminate someone’s world.

May we possess the awareness of G-d’s majesty every day and in every place.

May we elevate the Medium of our speech and actions.

May we live our lives guided by the memories we create.

May we be the conduits to bring peace and blessing into the world this year!

May the Almighty who grants peace above grant peace on all Israel and the world and let us say Amen.

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