Derekh Eretz - Making Decency Common Again
Sermon by Rabbi Steven I. Rein on Rosh Hashanah 5779 Day 1, September 10, 2018
You know who’s the worst? That guy who runs up to a crowded Yellow Line train at Pentagon City, pushing past the people waiting for passengers to get off, and forces his way through the doors. That guy got to me again one day this summer, cramming himself into the last space on a packed car instead of letting the older woman who’d been waiting far longer have the spot. Excepting for sociopaths, nobody really wants to be that guy. And yet, somehow, that guy is all over the place. I’d go so far as to say that we’re all that guy (or gal), at one time or another. We treat every inch in traffic with the kind of territorialism associated with NASCAR tracks or international border skirmishes. Some days, living in Washington feels like starring in a minor- key remake of “The Hunger Games,” in which everything is a zero-sum contest and every act of common courtesy is a sign of weakness. “Nasty, brutish, and short” is how Thomas Hobbes described life during wartime in 1651. More than 350 years later, life in what passes for peacetime is the same, but longer. This isn’t exclusive to Washington, to be sure. But this happens to be where we live, and people here are busy and bored, stressed and depressed, lonely and claustrophobic, sometimes all at once.
Whatever the cause, the contempt with which we treat one another can be breathtaking, as if rudeness were its own reward. Need I remind everyone of what happened at the Red Hen this summer? Political opinions are one thing, but throwing someone out of a restaurant? Or to move a little closer to home - remember the Muslim caretaker who was berated by someone in this synagogue while the congregant she was caring for was using the restroom? It’s like there is a terrible rash in our society and it is spreading everywhere. We are hyper-vigilant about the shortcomings of strangers, yet blind to our own mistakes. This isn’t about civility...it’s about courtesy, dignity, and common decency. This is the theme I want to talk about over the High Holidays.
We are living in a time, or maybe all times were like this, where common decency is not always so common. Our challenge is not that we don’t know what is good and decent. Our challenge is: who do you apply it to? You apply it to yourself…that is for sure. But who else do you apply it to? Do you apply it to all men or only men of your religion or race? Do you apply it to women? Do you apply it to people of other national identities? Do you apply it to people of other sexual identities? Setting aside common decency is so easy. Doesn't take much…just a little bit of fear…just a little bit of aspiration...just a little bit of the sense that you haven't had your fair share. All of the sudden our priorities shift and our common decency becomes less common.
Think about political discourse for a moment. I’m not sure that decency is even a value. Our discourse seems to be reaching new heights (or lows) not merely in the way we talk about each other but in the way we hear each other, the way we interpret each other. One of the central rules in philosophy is that when you confront a counter-argument you are supposed to give it its best reading, its best argument. Do we do that in our color-coded political lives? It's very easy to win a political debate when you determine both your argument and the sensibility of the other. We don’t hear or listen anymore.
If politics makes you uncomfortable, think about social media. We now have friends we never see and enemies we never met. I don't only friend and befriend, I'm able to say whatever I want. Sometimes I read the posts people write on social media and I wonder: would this person really ever say such a thing to someone? “You're a stupid fool who has never understood anything and you are a curse upon humanity.” I talk in front of people all the time, and I am sure there are people who don’t like what I have to say, but I’ve never heard that during kiddush. Maybe in 2018, words just don’t mean what they used to. Maybe when I call someone a “stupid idiot fool creep who I hate,” I just mean that I'd like to challenge you to rethink some of your positions. Maybe that's what the words mean.
My reason for choosing this theme for the High Holidays comes from a feeling of increased angst, discomfort and wonderment. Sometimes it feels like we are living in a world turned upside down. Now I want to be very clear about something. I am not talking about the words or actions of others. If you spend the next ten days articulating all the failures of other people, you will have boarded the wrong train. This is an opportunity to think about ourselves. This is not the time to put our politicians or our government on trial. Please, please…leave that outside. That’s not the sacred work we have to do. You can’t do teshuva for someone else, nor is it appropriate. This is about how I could be just one step better. I say ‘I’ because I really want to grow. I'm not here just to preach. I want to live in a place and be a part of a community where I can find openings and take a step forward. And I hope you will want to do the same. So...let’s begin.
As evidenced by our Reflections Booklet, we have successfully taught a generation of Jews about tikkun olam - how to fix the world. I am afraid we taught the wrong two words. There are two words in our tradition that speak not about our attitude toward the world, but our attitude toward each other. The two words? Derekh eretz. What does derekh eretz mean? As a colleague of mine once said: “If you came to the Shabbos table improperly dressed, my father would say just two words...derekh eretz...and you went up and changed.” I used to think the term was something that Rodney Dangerfield said he never got...something that the late Aretha Franklin spelled out clearly to one and all. Literally speaking, derekh eretz means the way of the land. If I stretch it a little bit, it’s about connecting to some common norms. It’s not about laws. It’s not about regulating how much tzedakah you should give or when speech is libelous or not. It's not about determining the fixed and clear parameters of moral behavior. Derech eretz is about a deeper underlying sense of humanity. It’s what Joseph Welch famously said to Senator McCarthy: “Have you no sense of decency?” Derech eretz is to act in a manner that demonstrates your belief that all of humanity is created b’tzelem elohim - in the image of God.
If there was ever a time when it was important for society to be reminded of this, it is now…and for us as Jews there is no more appropriate day than today. “Hayom harat olam - Today is the birthday of the world,” not just the world but also humanity. We are reminded that every human being is a world in and of himself and herself. Today we embark upon the sacred journey of reshaping and refining that world. If we can fully appreciate the primacy of derekh eretz in our tradition, then, I believe, we can elevate the level of decency in our community and in our lives.
In its earliest formulations derekh eretz referred to the common Jew working the land. Practically speaking this meant getting up in the morning, going to work, and earning a living. With time, derekh eretz became synonymous with common sense. The Torah teaches us: don’t put all your money in one hiding place. When you build a boat make sure the width is 1/6 of its length so that it can float.
From common sense, derekh eretz evolved to what we would now call common courtesy. The Torah teaches us: don't stay as a guest with your relatives for more than a month. Remember what Robert Frost said: Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in. In theory this is correct. But there are boundaries. They have to let you in...but for how long? At what point do they actually have other plans. The problem, of course, is that they can’t kick you out. Therefore, what does derekh eretz require? That you leave! Common courtesy!
Here’s another one - I love this one. The Torah teaches us derekh Eretz - a person who travels to a foreign place and has his own provisions should not eat from them, rather he should buy from the local shopkeepers. This is beautiful. I’m travelling and now I have to buy a $13 cup of coffee. Why not just make my own coffee and put it in a thermos, it will cost me 5 cents. I’ll make my own tuna sandwich and life will be great. But when you are traveling, there is a whole world of people who make a living from the traveler. At the end of the day, each traveler may lose $5. But if a hundred people are willing to lose $5, another person can feed their family. Derekh eretz - common courtesy.
Derekh eretz is no longer about living on the land, it is about living with people. As the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas taught: to see somebody is to be obligated. When I don't see you...ach...who cares. This is not about lofty ideals. To be a human being created in God’s image, to be a mensch, is to live with sensitivity and politeness. To be polite and courteous is to realize that the world in which you live is inhabited by people who are not just simply you. It’s to look out into the horizon and see beyond your own belly button. Derekh eretz teaches that when you see someone you must strive to figure out who they are and what they need.
This journey from common practice to common sense to common courtesy leads us to the final stage of derekh eretz - common decency. Our Sages explain it with the following story (excerpted from Vayikra Rabbah 9:3). Once upon a time there was a scholar named Rabbi Yannai. One day, Rabbi Yannai was walking along the road and saw a well-dressed man. He invited the man into his home and entertained him with food and drink. As they were eating and drinking together, Rabbi Yannai tested his Judaic knowledge - from the most complex to the most basic - and found that he had none. Rabbi Yannai then told him: lead us in birkat hamazon - grace after the meal. The guest was unable. Seeing that he could not even recite a basic blessing, Yannai said: repeat after me, ‘A dog has eaten Yannai’s bread.’
Offended, the man stood up, and grabbed Rabbi Yannai by the collar! You have my inheritance, he said, and you are withholding it from me! “What is this inheritance of yours that I have,” asked Rabbi Yanai. The man answered: I once passed by a school and heard the voices of little children singing: ‘Torah tziva lanu Moshe - Moses gave us the Torah, the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob.' It’s not written that ‘the Torah is the inheritance of the congregation of Yannai,' but the 'congregation of Jacob - all the Jewish people.' The man simply wanted to learn Torah - his inheritance. Rabbi Yannai then asked, “If you don’t know anything, how are you worthy of eating at the home of an esteemed scholar?” The man answered, “Never in my life have I shared evil words spoken about someone. Never have I seen two people arguing without making peace between them.” Rabbi Yannai then said, “how could I have called you a dog when you have so much derech eretz?”
In this story it is Rabbi Yannai who is deeply flawed. This guest was an exemplar of decency. He didn’t learn it from books, he’s completely illiterate. This man sees people’s faces and he feels morally obligated, not just to be polite, but to spread goodness and kindness. Just as our sages want us to work the land, they want us to connect to humanity.
There is now one last stop along our journey. If derekh eretz is all that matters, what do we need Torah for? The answer, surprisingly, can be learned by none other than Aristotle. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle describes two kinds of virtue: intellectual - which is taught - and moral - which is the result of habit. From this it is also clear that none of the moral virtues arise in us by nature. If being kind and decent was in our nature we could never act counter to that.
You can’t train a stone to fly upwards no matter how many times you throw it in the air. While we may not be hard wired, we do have the potential for decency. If we are going to actualize that potential we need practice. Just as people become builders by building and trumpet players by playing the trumpet; so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts. Common decency doesn’t emerge out of thin air. Our character arises out of our behaviors. It makes no small difference, Aristotle says, whether we form habits of one kind or another from our very youth; it makes a very great difference, or rather all the difference. If you get used to habituating virtuous practice you become a virtuous human being. Put simply: we don’t become decent people by studying, reading books, or even going to shul. You want to become a moral human being, don’t talk and pray about it...do it!
Great is Torah for it leads to derekh eretz. That is to say, our religious tradition has an important role to play in shaping moral character. What happens when I don’t touch money on shabbat for a period of 25 hours. I practice what Heschel teaches, to have more doesn’t mean to be more. Through weekly practice I regulate and train my soul. By sitting down with my family for dinner most nights I practice what it means in family life to recognize the importance of not only quality time but quantity time. Every morning, afternoon, and evening I pound my chest and say: selach lanu avinu ki chatanu - please forgive me for I have sinned. This is not about regulating a notion of guilt but rather a notion that as a human being I can be more than who I am. Torah is vital because it creates regular practice and serves as a vehicle for challenging us and habituating moral behavior.
When derekh eretz is absent we get the incident of hatred that took place in these halls back in December. When derekh eretz is a part of our lives we get a very different story - the story of Rose and Murray Geller. Rose and Murray were longtime members of Valley Beth Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in Encino, California (the shul where former Agudas intern Noah Farkas serves as rabbi). Like many “regulars” in synagogues, they had their “regular” seats in the sanctuary: sixth row center, on the aisle. One Shabbat morning they came to shul a little late and found two strangers sitting in “their seats.” Instead of saying, “You’re sitting in our seats,” the Gellers said: “Shabbat shalom! We haven’t seen you here before. Are you new? Welcome!” But, of course, they still hoped to sit in their “usual place.” So they asked: “May we sit with you?” The visitors were thrilled...and moved over two seats!
The story gets better. During the first Torah procession, the Gellers began to chat with the visitors - Joy and Chuck Feldman. They were from Toronto and had heard about Valley Beth Shalom and wanted to experience it. During the second Torah procession, the Gellers invited the Feldmans to sit with them at kiddush. Over lunch the Gellers and the Feldmans continued to bond, promising to stay in touch. Fast-forward several years. This story was shared in Toronto to a large crowd of synagogue leaders. Suddenly two people started waving wildly: “It’s us, it’s us!” Sure enough, it was the Feldmans. “We’ve been friends with the Gellers for more than fifteen years. We’ve been to each other’s simchas, comforted each other in times of loss. We love them!” A wonderful friendship born from the simple gesture of welcoming the stranger - exhibiting just a little bit of derekh eretz. It’s really that easy! As we continue to grow and learn as a community, now in our second century, let’s make derekh eretz the way in which we interact with all strangers and newcomers, red Jews and blue Jews, people with disabilities and people who are LGBTQ. At Agudas, every person should be treated with derekh eretz.
Today is Rosh Hashanah. Today we think not about the shortcomings of others but about ourselves. Do you have a personal Torah which habituates derekh eretz? Think about the practices that you have to commit yourself to do. How will you change the way you talk about the person who disagrees with you? How will you habituate the way you talk about your political adversaries? What are the jokes you will tell? We make our biggest mistakes when we say ‘it doesn’t matter.’ You need to see someone’s eyes tell you ‘yes it does, it matters to me.’ Can you hear that? When you look at that person next to you, what do you see? Do you see someone with a label, or do you see a human being made in the image of God? When you look at yourself in the mirror what do you see? A person a bit older and a bit heavier than last year, or do you see a person of enormous potential; one who can grow and learn. Look at yourself and remember who you are. Remember to conduct your everyday life with derekh eretz. Speak kindly, give praise, respect others’ opinions, respect their time and space, be considerate, watch your mouth, think the best, listen and pay attention, no road rage. Instead of raising your hand or your voice, raise your own dignity and the self esteem of the people who turn to you for love. Behave as though God made you worthy. God did! Behave as though the world depends on your humanity and decency. It does! After all is said and done, I think it is this message that brings us to the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah. Some come out of loyalty, some come out of nostalgia, some come out of guilt. But I think the real reason we come here is to find out who we really are.
And so as we usher in this New Year, this is my wish for you today. Take this message from the synagogue home with you. Go home, look around the table, the office, social media, the Metro. Really look! Look behind the make-up and the wrinkles, the grey hair, the shtick and the flaws and see the real people who are there, with their virtues and potentials, their capabilities and aspirations. Look and see and think: of the eight billion people now living, of all the people who ever lived. They are not to be hit, but hugged; not to be abused, but loved; not to be ridiculed, but cherished; not to be put down, but uplifted. Look at yourself, your partner, your friends, your older parents and younger children as images of God. Treat each of them with therespect they deserve. Look around with open eyes, with grateful eyes, and then say with a whole and happy heart to those whom you love, as I do now as I look out at you: “L'shana tova tikatevu– May the year that now begins be a year of derekh eretz.” A year in which we receive good and a year in which we do good. If we can do that...then maybe, just maybe, in our own little community here on Valley Drive...maybe in my own life...maybe in our everyday existence... common decency will be just a little more common.