June 8, 2024
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Derech Eretz Kadmah LaTorah

Part 1

In the previous article we spoke to the anxiety with which so many approached the season of holidays last year that bookended the start of this pandemic exactly a year ago. Yet, despite the circumstances in which we find ourselves, we managed to enjoy Purim with our families within the context of minimalism. This leads some to believe that perhaps that was exactly one of the lessons Hashem sent our way via this pandemic. At least for some, we grew too accustomed to “excess” in many arenas. This is not to minimize the loneliness of those who spent Shabbatot alone. Nor is it to curtail the questions that fill our heads with the impact factoring in the vaccination: Will we usher in the Yomim Tovim this season, at least Pesach, with some hope that our situation has changed? Since I am one who leans on the Torah truth, we know that the challenges Hashem, our Father, sends our way is comparable to the potch (slap) or harsh word devoted parents dish out in order to encourage their children to actuate the fullness of their potential. When we fail to do so, He extends the challenge in order to wake up our sensibilities. Given the response of our people, with so many adhering to all the precautions, and the amazing acts of tzedakah and chesed at the forefront, there is a strong chance that our geulah will come in the manner of k’heref ayin (in the blink of an eye), as all the rest. At the very least, we can lean on our emunah, knowing that all that comes from God is nothing less than goodness. Yet, it is also possible that we have come so close, but still need some revving up. Not in our emunah in Hakadosh Baruch Hu, but in our self-confidence that we are up to the task of trying even harder, to please our Maker, by continuing to join in with Him in this mission!

In contemplating my own part in this assignment, the length of this pandemic, I can’t help but wonder where I went wrong. I say this because while my anxiety has quelled, and I have tried to respond in my own way to the above insights, still there can be an additional way for me to move this mission forward and convince God that we are worthy of the yeshuah we are yearning for. In listening to the shiurim on the past parshiot of Yisro and Mishpatim, I believe I found some answers that could be a source of inspiration to others. It is difficult to deny that when it comes to personal, professional and many other arenas of our lives we tend to be a generation of “climbing the ladder.” At times, we reach for impossible goals and punish ourselves for not meeting our standards of expectation. Yet, when it comes to the Torah mandate of “Kedoshim Tihiyu,” we tend to assume a posture of: “I have arrived.” Once this occurs, we remain complacent with where we are. Yet, the Torah offers so many lessons as to how we can change our trajectory of stagnation by following the examples of our Torah heroes.

Over the years, many questions have been raised regarding how it came to be that Yisro, a gentile priest no less, merited the honor of having an entire parsha named after him. Our rabbis teach us that a great deal can be learned from the relationship Moshe shared with his father-in-law. As the parsha unfolded, it became crystal clear that Moshe was impressed with Yisro and held him in high regard. As a result, he gave him the honor he deserved. Indeed, as an ambassador of God to the world, as well as leader and teacher of the nation, he could easily have found ways of avoiding him. He could have explained that he answered to God, and God, his Boss, already had a set of instructions for him to follow. Yet, he listened respectfully and even took him up on his suggestions. Coming from the one who was chosen as transmitter of the Torah, we have a lot to learn about the principle of “derech eretz kadmah laTorah.” This parsha makes it crystal clear that the traits of civility and respect are dear to God, and the reward is great. Yet, if this value is so precious in the eyes of God we have to take it very seriously. Indeed, this is not a time to let go of the responsibility we took on, when we earned the status of the “Chosen People” via the gifting of the Torah. This means being meticulous in honoring God and in our relationships with one another. There is no leg room or compromise in our role as ambassadors of God. It is our job to spread the word, via example, in exactly how to stay the course on the path of the right and the just. This of course means following the rules of our surroundings, especially when the rules are for our own benefit and the benefit of others. In fact, we should shudder when we hear of public displays of violations to the parameters set by our experts and officials. Yet, when faced with these indiscretions, we need to remember that it is only in the realm of the gedolei hador and our rabbis to join in making sure that a chillul Hashem, a consecration of God’s name, does not take place. At the same time, we should also avoid judging and speaking publicly and harshly about the violators, because this is nothing less than lashon hara and adds to the chillul Hashem. Let us leave this up to those whose status calls upon them to take the initiative in a manner that is consistent with our Torah values.

The best we can do is follow the examples of our Torah greats such as Moshe Rabbeinu in his relationship with his father-in-law on how to stay the course on the path of derech eretz kadmah laTorah. We can do this by teaching via example rather than giving unsolicited advice. As I was contemplating these ideas my iPhone clicked, signaling that an email was coming in. While I rarely respond to my phone while working, when I saw it came from my husband, Jack, I opened up an attachment that contained a video. Since he knows me well, I knew it was something I would enjoy. Taking a break from completing this submission in time for the deadline, I knew this was hashgacha pratit, a gift Hakadosh Baruch Hu sent my way, via the most important person in my life. It turned out to tell the story of a ceremony that took place in Israel yesterday of soldiers in the Israeli army who saved hundreds of lives by donating stem cells to victims of disease. In a speech by the director of Ezer MiZion, the organization responsible for this mission, he directed the attention of the audience to the distinction of the Israeli army. He proudly proclaimed, “Not only can we claim that we protect the people and the country, but we also save lives.” At that point in time I was so proud to be a Jew. Yet, when they called upon the recovered patients to meet their donors, I was brought to tears. This was truly a testimony to the well- known words: “Ain kamocha am Yisrael, am hakadosh, there are no people equal to the people of Israel, the holy nation.” We reach our greatest level of holiness when we treat the children of God with the appreciation, respect, love and valuation consistent with their holiness.

As if this wasn’t enough payback for my efforts, my grandson Shmuel Nussbaum called from Israel and shared a dvar Torah that fit in perfectly with these insights. He spoke to the midah of kavod acheirim, respect and appreciation for others, as modeled by the Alter from Slobodka, referenced by Rav Don Kestenbaum. He made a case for the import of kavod habriyot as a value that should be on the top of the list on our mitzvot bein adam l’adam. In fact, he argued, that if one denigrates the respect of another in any manner, it is tantamount to killing him. This is the human psyche: It thrives on self-respect and cannot exist without it. Just as one needs the air he breathes, he thrives on the respect of others. Moreover, via our mishpatim, we are meant to understand that our Jewish ideology not only expects us to obey the rules of law and order by avoiding crimes, it also charges us with striving for outstanding behavior when it comes to interpersonal relationships. Indeed, offering appreciation and validation, or any act that will increase the self-respect of another, is tantamount to offering one the very air they breathe in order to sustain life. It is for this reason that we should take every opportunity to go beyond one’s own self-respect by doing anything possible to elevate the confidence and self-respect of our fellow man.

Let us continue to follow the real-time heroes and heroines in these examples, focusing on the positive and encouraging others to hop on the path of holiness. In doing so we will do our part in bringing an end to our bondage and a beginning of our final geulah. With this in mind, we can anticipate the upcoming Pesach with joy rather than trepidation.


Renee Nussbaum is a practicing psychoanalyst with special training in imago relational therapy. She can be reached at [email protected].

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