Thursday, October 8, 2020

Torah and Derech Eretz, Yom Kippur 20


What’s the right way to hold this [fork]?  Is there even a right way?  Americans are, or were, taught an additional step to make them slow down when eating, but the original method is to hold it like this, tines curving down, index finger pressing on the stem, and poke into your food while, holding your knife in the right hand in similar fashion, you slice, not saw, through your bite, and then lift it on your fork to your mouth – and then chew with your mouth closed!

Such is how one with “good manners” eats.  For many, the idea of “manners” in this sense can feel dated, antiquated – I really need more than one fork?  I really need a water glass and a wine glass (think of the “wrong glass, sir” scene in The Blues Brothers to imagine that one)?

Yet, as insignificant as it may seem, holding a fork in that way is “the best” way to manipulate such a tool.  Taking the time to learn, know and apply all the knowledge of fork-use is not only efficient, but is, or can be, a little gift you bestow, by acting your best even about small things, too. 

Once, when walking with my rabbi, Rabbi Schimmel, to synagogue, he stopped and sighed a little and, apropos of nothing said, “you know, Germany was such a wonderful place before the Nazis.”  He had grown up there, in Frankfurt am Main, and left around 1935.  Yekkes, German Jews, take the prize for being concerned with “manners,” or as we would say in Hebrew, derech eretz.

Derech eretz, “the way of the land,” like “manners” in English is inclusive of things like holding your fork, but also of so much more – which is why we discuss it now.  Part of why it is such an important feature related to German Jewry is the emphasis placed on it by Rabbi Sampson Raphael Hirsch, one of its great leaders in the 19th century.  He wrote:

“Derech eretz includes everything that flows from the human need to perfect one’s destiny and life, together with society, through the medium of the earth’s bounty. Hence, the term is used in reference to earning a living,  establishing civic order, and to the paths of discipline, manners and refinement that social life require, as well as to everything that touches upon the development of humankind and civility.”

As we will attempt to see, understanding derech eretz is vitally critical to each of us not just surviving during this time in our country, but perhaps even saving it and ourselves. 

Even derech eretz when taken in the “prim and proper” sense teaches us something.  Rabbi Schimmel talked about how going to synagogue in Germany meant wearing a “cylinder,” a top hat.  Or how when Eastern European Jews came to shul with their tzitzit “indecorously” sticking out would be told to tuck them in, or how, when I became his intern, my choice not to wear a robe (as he did) for funerals disappointed some congregants.

All these may seem funny and anachronistic and out of date, but consider – was it trivial to the grieving family who felt their loved one was honored when “the rabbi” wore vestments even into the cemetery, regardless of whether it was dusty or muddy or rainy?  Or to express through how one dresses the importance we feel about some event? Or even as a reason to remember that showing off, even in a religious context, isn’t as pious as having a quiet dignity that doesn’t draw attention to itself? 

As much as all those examples demonstrate how the “small” features of derech eretz can make a difference in our lives, the next few will cement for us how, at a time in our country when all too many around us, when even “us,” are sorely lacking in derech eretz, that we need it. 

Rabbi Schimmel also taught me how, as a baker’s son, he learned the smile on a customer’s face when you gave them something they were sure to delight in was worth more than however many marks they might pay you. 

Or, how about their maid, a young German woman, his father, Elias, instructed my rabbi and his six siblings, “you are not to refer to her as ‘that girl’ and never as “the shikseh.”  She has a name and you will use it.” 

Or the story I’ve shared of how one night Elias found a Nazi party member passed out drunk on their front steps and brought him a blanket and pillow, only for the man, when he came to the next morning, to curse about a “Jew-boy” ever doing something as considerate as that. 

…I can’t comprehend how stories of true derech eretz true menschlichkeit, seem for so many in America today, as antiquated and out of date as the top hat one.  How did we come to live in a country as coarse as ours now?  Driven to our current low state by, of all things, politics. 

All us Americans – so carefully informed and following politics so closely.  Rooting for our side to win and your side to lose ignominiously.  No doubt that’s why House Resolution 5363, which became Public Law #116-91 just before the pandemic must frustrate you all so much.

You know, the one called, “Fostering Undergraduate Talent by Unlocking Resources for Education Act or the FUTURE Act,” permanently authorizing funding for minority-serving institutions of higher education?

How annoying that such a dastardly piece of legislation passed in the House with almost 400 votes and passed by unanimous consent in the Senate.  What were they all thinking to come together on something terrible like that? 

Are we even aware of such things?  And if we are, do they temper our views?  Certainly, there are issues of grave concern over which loyal and patriotic American differ mightily – but does that mean we need to hate each other because of it?  Use insults?  Cast aspersions?  Is it worth all that?  And even if the other side is doing it to you, does it make your side better to return fire? 

Isn’t doing so at least as bad as dressing slovenly to a wedding? Don’t let yourself be manipulated that way!  Whatever TV channel you’re watching, I suppose unless it’s CSPAN or you watch Canadian news or something, isn’t your network at least a little motivated to keep you glued to screen?  Is truth, is thoughtfulness, served by such a motive?

I truly worry for our country on this point.  I worry about this more than any other one thing.  As important as many of the issues we confront as Americans today mean to me, demonizing each other is not going to help achieve success in supporting them.  Is that naïve?  Probably.  Is the person who posts provocative stuff on Facebook any less naïve thinking someone somewhere is saying, “your all caps post has shown me the error of my ways?”

There is a famous saying about “derech eretz, derech eretz kadma la-Torah,” “Derech eretz precedes the Torah.”  How can it be that manners, civility, being a mensch, come before the Torah?  The rabbis explain it with a midrash about Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden: “God drove them out, and stationed east of Eden cherubim and the fiery ever-turning sword, to guard the way to the tree of life.” (Gen. 3:24) – The midrash is that “way” derech eretz, comes before “tree of life” which is the Torah. 

God gifted humankind civility, thoughtfulness, consideration towards others at the very start.  Torah wasn’t revealed to Moses for centuries after that. 

Just as Jeremiah tells us:  For when I brought your ancestors out of the land of Egypt, I did not merely command them about burnt offerings and sacrifices, but I commanded them: Obey Me, and I will be your God, and you will be My people. You must walk in all the ways וַהֲלַכְתֶּ֗ם בְּכָל־הַדֶּ֙רֶךְ֙ I have commanded you, so that it may go well with you.”

If our own tradition teaches us that as important as our prayers and rituals are, at least as important, and maybe more so, is acting properly towards each other – how can you think that your identity as an American, as a Republican, as a Democrat, is ennobled through nasty, debasing words and deeds? 

My friends, I feel obliged to say all this to you.  To do what I can to correct a plague that I hope you will join me in fighting – that of belittling and demonizing others in this country, by treating them respectfully instead.

If Elias Schimmel, a Jew in the 1930s, could offer a blanket to a drunk Nazi, and feel he’d done the right thing even after being disparaged by the very man he helped, can we not bring ourselves to see those who oppose us as generously?  Even if you feel the people on the other side are as bad as Nazis, recall that if you want to put it that way, then both the “Nazis” and the “Bolsheviks” all voted for that FUTURE Act we were talking about.  Sometimes both sides aren’t that bad. 

We Jews brought Torah into the world.  We Jews are meant to be a light to the nations.  But according to the midrash, all human beings deserve the inheritance given to Adam and Eve which is derech eretz – proper, good, holy treatment by others.  And it is a tribute, an honor, a glory we bestow on our departed loved ones to live in such a way as does their spirits proud.  Let us make our success at spreading this universal value part of how we fulfill our particular, our Jewish, purpose in the new year that has just begun.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah!

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