Having briefly explored notions concerning national/tribal identity, settling our homeland and learning Torah, this miniseries moves on to look at select interpersonal ethics, intrapersonal ethics, and communication within the klal. This week’s offering, “Self-importance, a Characteristic that Ill-Suits Us,” mentions some of the communication responsibilities that come with being a Yid.
If we can make "The Boss" proud, then we have something for which to be grateful.
If not, then we have work ahead of us.
Unfortunately, the latter often seems more true than the former. It seems as though we, as a people, are confused about the difference between being “chosen” and being “superior.” The former alludes to service and to inclusivity. The latter refers to conceit, perhaps by route of insecurity, and to exclusivity.
Consider that sometimes folks engage in “right” actions for “wrong” reasons. Kiruv, for example, is a noble cause, is an important way in which individuals can aid Klal Yisrael. Such help, though, is sometimes attempted by persons seeking not to authentically give a hand up to their brothers and sisters, but to patch their own egos.
Recently, I heard two rather disheartening stories on the topic. In one of those tales, a pal was dismissed by a long term associate as being “merely,” the sort of Jew who still needs to lean on some English translations in her siddur. My pal’s mentor belittled her for such doings rather than lauded my pal for the difficult steps my friend has been taking to become a balit teshuva. As a result, my friend sought and found a different guide. Presently, my pal works hard not to prejudge her learning hevrusa as imperious.
Another of my friends was studying with a woman who was “from generations of Torah teachers.” Yet, that woman often canceled their sessions at the last minute in order to take shopping trips, to engage in coffee dates, or to visit the gym. By dint of her actions, my second friend’s associate telegraphed that my second friend’s deeper understanding of Yiddishkeit was less valuable than was that teacher’s engaging in comparatively piffling activities. In the case of my second friend, too, a new tutor was sought and an earnest Jew was left struggling not to see any of her future partners as condescending.
I extolled, to my first pal, the merits of her pushing forward in her Torah acquisition. I reassured my second friend that understanding the laws of our fathers is more important than are most human endeavors. Nonetheless, in both cases, I was merely the voice of a cohort, not of a teacher. I wish my friends’ guides had been a little more sensitive. I wish my friends had been made to feel more “part of” and less “other.” I wish aid would be given more graciously, more often.
Sometimes, though, it is the asking for help, not the offering, which reveals individual audacities. As a case in point, consider that my family tries to put its two shekels into the pot, per se, by imperfectly, albeit, with Hashem’s help, providing regular Hachnasat Orchim. Although we try to offer our home to strangers as a means of expressing love to The Boss, very often He rewards us for our service, anyway. Over the years, we have merited to meet many interesting, remarkable people. Occasionally, though, the gift G-d bestows upon us has been opportunities to increase our tolerance and understanding.
More specifically, at times, we’ve attempted to host visitors who think nothing of neglecting to let us know, even at the last minute, that they’ve decided not to show up, who fail to check with my family if they can extend their stay past Shabbat or Hag, or who show up, as agreed upon, and stay the length of time agreed upon, but expect to be waited on. Our home is not a hotel.
My loved ones and I are good with requests for special diets, for specific types of minyonim, and, when possible, for adjusting, before the start of Shabbat or Hag, heating, cooling and lighting. Nonetheless, we extend ourselves so that other Yidden will have a place to stay in Jerusalem, not so that we can throw away our finite time, material goods, or energy. We try to provide hospitality, in a modest fashion, in order to be faithful to Hashem, not to impress his creations. We are hurt when other Jews treat us as “excluded from.”
We are not abject others. Any meekness, which we manifest, does not necessarily indicate a servile nature or any other form of self-debasement. My family, Baruch Hashem, has fairly intact integrity. When folks make the assumption that because we are Israeli or because we are observant or because we are so tall or so wide or whatever, that we can be trod upon, we hurt.
A third way in which self-importance injuries other people is when persons hurt each other by making differences amongst them into levels of social strata. One of my cousins tells the tale of a newly minted exercise coach, employed by a gym, populated mostly by observant women. The trainer in question approached my cousin and told her to do an exercise differently than the way my cousin had been performing it for years.
My cousin, who is more than twice the age of the employee and who has been involved in sports since long before that younger lady was born, thanked the coach and returned to the business of staying in shape. Again, the younger lady stopped her. The instructor informed my cousin that she had to immediately desist because she was going about her activity wrong. For a second time, my cousin thanked the younger lady. Frustrated, the trainer told my cousin that she had to listen to her because she was “the coach.” My cousin, allegedly, moved away from the weight room and into the cardio center until that younger lady finished her shift.
There are many other instances in which any of us are guilty of hiding behind self-appointed prestige. We might invoke exclusivity because of secular degrees, because of surgically-enhanced beauty, or because of strength borrowed from paper fortunes. Rarely, though, do we think about the facts: that our institutional qualifications may well be of less value than pragmatic know-how, that our raised brows, jowls and bosoms might be of little interest to anyone but ourselves, and that our monies do not accompany us to the next world, but our deeds, or lack thereof, do. Yet, too frequently, we deign to assess other people’s worth relative to our own questionable cores.
Reflect on the children who mock other youngsters struggling with the aleph-bet. Mull over “spiritual leaders” who demean followers and then maintain sufficient airs as to support their presumptuous rhetoric by saying “I am your leader, so you better listen to me” (sadly, at a recent simcha, one such “leader” literally said he was going to stretch the honored tradition of a short drasha because he felt it was necessary and because he knew better than did any of the rest of the Jews in attendance what was good for the klal. That man gave no heed to the parents who had ticking babysitter meters, to the guests whose ill-health afforded them only a short stay, or to the many other persons before whom he cast his stumbling block). Adjudicate your own seemingly mundane activities, especially those which broadcast that you are so outstanding as to not to have to abide by the norms to which you oblige others. Few of us are free of the conceit that we are, at least secretly, different from, i.e. exclusive to, the pack.
We’re in this world for a very short time, even if we merit reaching one hundred and twenty years. It’s a pity so much of our experience is wasted in separating ourselves from, rather than joining ourselves with, Bnai Yisrael. It’s possible, though, for us to rethink and to change the way in which we give of ourselves, the way in which we take or accept goodness from others, and the way in which we regard ourselves relative to the other people with whom we come into contact.
It behooves us to immediately become more careful about what we think, what we say and how we act. Our lives are supposed to be focused on honoring The King. Our Ruler cares entirely about all of his congregants. We ought not disgrace ourselves by embarrassing other Jews.
If we can jettison even a smidge of our self-importance, then we have improved in a way that matters. Whether or not anyone else cares if we shame another Jew, it remains the truth that Hashem is watching. If we can make The Boss proud, then we have something for which to be grateful.
Stay tuned for the last two essays in this miniseries, Grateful to be a Yid; “Dropouts,” and “Neither Location nor Hashgafa.” Mindfulness remains crucial to Yiddishkeit.