First, be a Mensch: Derech Eretz Kadma l’Torah

Wittingly or not, we live according to our personal schemata for merit. Some folk claim that their relationship to Hashem is the highest order of good. Others espouse that their relationship to the rest of humanity needs to be their chief concern. We need to side, ironically, because of our yearning to please The Boss, with the latter. The way in which we live our lives must precede our “religiosity.”


Yet, the truth of the principle of derech eretz kadma la-Torah, of being a mensch before all else, can’t be actualized exclusive of Torah. Without the foundation of our strictures, we can’t be certain of the nature of our “goodness” or of the most meaningful way for us to act accordingly.


Fortunately, proper living requires neither hair covering, nor a commitment to learn in a religious program (albeit both of those items are useful and can help us evolve spiritually), but requires the taking up of the cause of achdut, unity (as opposed to achidut, uniformity). Our behaviors need not embrace all of everyone else’s choices. Rather, Jewish virtue mandates that we remove ourselves from the unfortunate attitude of “them” and “us,” or, moreso, of “you” and “me.” We need to try to feel affection for all Jewish choice makers, and to try to understand that Jews, have always been and will always be “us” and “us.” In short, each and every Jew is precious, each and every Jew deserves honor, and each and every Jewish life is sacred.


We have to work at realizing these absolutes. In spite of the personal and collective legitimization of modern, secular mores, most of us still, as is appropriate, struggle to bring to light an attitude that dispenses with granting ourselves the right to judge the relative merit of others. We know deeply, as well as intellectually, that we have been commanded to cherish their and our own often unknown worth.


This Torah concept is not impossibly archaic so much as it is a challenge to our ordinarily complacent selves. On the one hand, it’s easy to dismiss the importance of other people. On the other hand, it is vital that we celebrate their presence in this world by treating them first and foremost with every imaginable kindness. All of the above notwithstanding, finding an intact snowball on a desert would be far easier.


The fact remains, however, that it is more than sinister to regard other human beings as having, at best, relative value. Additionally, it continues to be more noble to grapple with our less desirable tendencies and to repeatedly fall, i.e. to repeatedly have to reboot our efforts, holding tight to The Almighty each time we slip, than to disdain even a single other Jew. Consider that each of us is fashioned from the same combination of earthly dust and heavenly soul as are all of our Jewish brothers and sisters.


The sooner that we accept the necessity of prizing each other, the sooner that we will know lasting peace. If, alternatively, has v’shalom, we insist on failing to find the good in all Jews, all of the time, we make that most sought after of ends difficult to achieve. The writing on the wall, per se, did not completely fade, relative to the mysterious script interpreted by Daniel in the time of Belshazzar. Rather, only the semantics have changed. These days, humans still irrationality evoke various sorts of supernal graffiti, of drawing divine attention to our imperfections.


Correspondingly, we suffer sickness, financial insecurity, familial woes and many other problems. Egocentrically-focused reality causes our governments, too, to trip up. Perhaps, most gravely, such a tack, the presumption that we are vindicated in adjudicating other persons’ worth rather than in doing our utmost to improve our side of  relationships, is a form of idolatry, of fallaciously trying to raise ourselves above our designated station. Grimly, in acting in that way, we choose the curse, not the blessing.


While it is easy to attempt to explain the soundness of reacting negatively to persons more strict than ourselves, who, for instance, might give us mussar about the type of buttons we have on our shirts, or about persons less strict than ourselves, who, for instance, might invite us to concede their view that we ought to abandon the mitzvah of being shomer nigea, it is neither wise nor correct to yield our closeness to each other over our differences. Just as drivers traveling faster than us are not, in truth, “maniacs,” and just as drivers traveling slower than us are not, in truth, “demented,” all other Jews, living at their points of the observance array are not better or worse trekkers. Together, we’re on the only available highway.