Missing the Point
When I was a featured speaker at a Pesach program in a beautiful hotel, there were hundreds of families enjoying the food and activities, and my family was certainly no exception. As our family sat down to a pleasant yom tov meal, my son asked me a question with a look of confusion on his face.
“Mom, I just saw a lady screaming at the waiter. All he did was take the spoon that was in the meatball dish and place it into the serving platter that had fish. Why would that lady be so upset about that?”
Clearly my son was not aware of the halachah of not serving fish and meat together (or using the same utensil for both fish and meat without washing it first). However, more importantly, he was very aware of an even more central Jewish tenet: treating other people with respect.
He was noticing something very important: Attempting to adhere to the letter of the law is vital, but it cannot be done while basic middos and kindness fall by the wayside. If we do this we are missing the entire point of Judaism.
My husband was in shul one Shabbos morning. After the davening, he saw a young boy race to the cholent bowl at the kiddush and serve himself a hefty portion. An elderly man gently said to him, “Perhaps you should allow the adults to take first before partaking?” The young boy replied, “Actually, technically speaking, I am an adult since I just became bar mitzvah!” He then continued to add heaping spoonfuls to his plate.
I was surprised (read: horrified) when I heard this story. I would want someone to let me know if they ever saw my children doing something like this. First and foremost, our children must be taught derech eretz because “Derech eretz kadma leTorah.” (Midrash Vayikra Rabbah 9:3) Teaching respect comes even before teaching Torah.
Situations can arise when people have different minhagim, such as not eating kitniyos or gebrokhts during Pesach. What should they do if they are guests in someone’s home, where they do eat kitniyos (as in Sephardic tradition) or gebrokhts? In order not to offend their host, they can ask a shailah regarding the halachah in these situations. The answer may be eye-opening.
There is usually a polite, respectful way to decline eating something without offending one’s host. One does not have to sacrifice his or her own minhagim. And certainly we don’t mean not keeping halachah and mitzvos in the proper manner. However, it is vital to remember a fundamental truth: keeping a balance between being focused on the minutiae and stringencies of halachah and not forgetting the importance of relationships bein adam l’chaveiro – between human beings. We need to avoid offending people and not creating a situation where someone would think less of religious people and the Torah we observe.
Awareness of other people’s sensitivities and feelings is crucial!
A sad story that illustrates the danger of people overlooking people’s feelings is told about a family that hosted a Friday night Shabbos seudah. The woman of the home had worked hard to create not only a lovely ambiance, but also delicious and perfectly presented food. The table was set beautifully and everyone was waiting for her husband to say kiddush.
He picked up the kiddush cup to say the brachah, but before he began, he noticed that the challos were not covered with the challah cover, as is traditionally done while the brachah over the wine is said. Losing his temper, he shouted at his wife, “Where’s the challah cover? How could you forget?”
She responded calmly, “I’m so sorry, I guess it just slipped my mind. I must be more tired than I realized.”
He didn’t seem to notice what she said about being tired and continued in an angry rage, “Well what are you standing here for? Go get it!”
Not only did he publicly berate and embarrass his wife, the guests were mortified! He obviously didn’t understand the reason we cover the challos. In the order that we say blessings on food, grains are given priority over fruits. Usually we would say the blessing on a piece of bread before the blessing on wine. However, on Shabbos we say the blessing on the wine first. In order not to “embarrass” the challos, we cover them with a beautiful cloth. Of course, challos are not human and do not have feelings! Yet this custom serves as a reminder to teach us about the importance of being sensitive to others. If the challos, which are inanimate objects, should not “see” the wine being blessed before them so that they will not “feel bad,” how much more should we respect a human being made in the image of G-d?!
We should always strive to treat other people with dignity and respect and in all circumstances make every effort to prevent embarrassment. How ironic that this man chose to yell at his wife and embarrass her in the presence of guests, over that specific mitzvah!
The point of Torah, halachah, and Judaism at large, is to develop relationships: our relationship with G-d, with others, and with ourselves. However, sometimes we get so caught up in the nitty-gritty details that we miss the essence of what we are supposed to be achieving.
For example, when visiting the Western Wall and holy sites such as Kever Rachel one will find hundreds of people gathered around to pray to G-d. This is a beautiful scene until one notices the people pushing and fighting to “get closer” to the front. It seems so easy to forget that we can achieve closeness to G-d no matter where we are standing. Allowing another person to have the right of way enhances the very relationship with G-d that we are all searching for. When we are mevater and we give others deference, G-d especially hears our prayers since we are doing our part to bring shalom into the world.
When I was once visiting Kever Rachel, I heard a woman sobbing next to me. Hearing her sobs moved me to tears as well. I paused in my own prayers and cried out, “Hashem, Hashem! Please answer this woman’s prayer. Please Hashem, answer each person here today and the prayers of everyone around the world.”
I still pray this prayer and hope that we as the Jewish people will realize that through unity and togetherness we can achieve anything. Fighting among ourselves, embarrassing others, and hurting our fellow Jews will get us nowhere and causes Hashem terrible anguish. If we ignore the importance of kindness and respect, we are missing the point of it all.
If we can remember that every person around us has their own story, their own needs, and deserves respect as much as we do, we can strive to keep this awareness with us at all times.
May we all recognize this great truth and make an effort to join together. And may we, in our daily lives, enhance our important relationships: with G-d, with our Jewish brethren, with our families, and with ourselves.