Being a mensch: The importance of respectful behavior

Rabbi Vernon Kurtz

By Rabbi Vernon Kurtz, Torah Columnist

Torah Portion: Vayikra – Leviticus 1:1-5:26

This Shabbat we begin the third book of the Bible.  It is known by various names. Most of us are familiar with the Latin term “Leviticus,” indicating things related to the Levites.  The Rabbinic title for the book is Torat Kohanim or “The Manual of the Priests.”  This is a better description of the book since the Priests were intimately involved in almost all of the rituals of the sacrificial system.

In Hebrew the book is referred to as “Vayikra.”  This has no relationship whatsoever to the content but is the first word of the book.  The Hebrew word “Vayikra” simply means “He called.” While it gives no hint to the subject of the book, I would like to suggest a possible lesson attached to the word which permeates it and maybe even all of Jewish life.

The Torah reading begins with the phrase:  “The Lord called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting saying.” A more literal way of translating this verse would suggest “He called to Moses.  G-d spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting saying.” The phrases seem to be redundant.  Why would G-d first call to Moses and then speak to him?  The Talmud was especially sensitive to these nuances of language.  In the tractate of Yoma the Rabbis ask: “Why does Scripture mention the call before the speech?  The Torah teaches us Derech Eretz, good manners.  A man should not address his neighbor without having first greeted him.”  The text shows that G-d showed special sensitivity to Moses by first calling to him so Moses could train his ear to G-d’s command, be prepared to listen to G-d’s voice, and intently concentrate on the the message.

Another commentator suggests that the phrasing of the verse intimates more about Moses than it does about G-d.  “The Torah says ‘He called to Moses.’  This teaches that even though Moses had authority to enter, he did not enter until G-d called him.”  Moses wanted a personal invitation before entering G-d’s space.  These two comments suggest a charming picture of both G-d and Moses observing appropriate manners.  Respect for personal space and personhood, appropriate behavior and speech become the model of the interaction between G-d and Moses.

In our day and age we have lost the art of civil discourse.  We don’t talk to one another, we talk at one another.  The many talk shows on TV are but one example.  Shouting has become a normal human activity.  Calm discourse and civil language rarely is used.  People seem to think that they can only get their way if they shout, scream and protest and, unfortunately, sometimes they are correct.  Go to a sporting event and listen to the language in the stands.  It is not the young people who berate the players or call the referees or umpires names.  It is the adults who become worse than little children as they cheer on their favorite team.  Is it any wonder that these children then go back to their playgrounds and their basketball courts, their baseball diamonds and hockey rinks and use the same language to berate the players on the other team, their teammates or the officials?  The internet and social media have only exacerbated the problem.  People shout at one another in capital letters, use coarse language, or simply use derogatory names rather than engaging in discussion.  The ability to respectfully disagree with another’s opinion does not seem to be a priority for many people.

In traditional Jewish wisdom the concept of Derech Eretz, appropriate behavior, has been clearly defined.  The Torah scholar who is arrogant or inconsiderate cannot be a true Torah scholar.  The Midrash, in fact, states:  “Derech Eretz precedes Torah study.”  One of the minor tractates of the Talmud is Derech Eretz Zuta.  It defines its terms with the following statement:  “The characteristics of a scholar are that he is meek, humble, alert, filled (with a desire for learning), modest, beloved by all, humble to the members of his household and sin-fearing.  He judges a man (fairly) according to his deeds.”

Every Jew can be a Torah sage.  Unlike the Priesthood, it is not reserved for a special class or family.  Each of us is asked to model behavior after that fashion. We must learn to watch our words, consider our behavior, and recognize that whatever we do is being watched both by G-d and by other human beings.  Appropriate etiquette is not merely reserved for fancy dinner parties.  There is also an ethical dimension to good manners.  Judith Martin, known as Miss Manners, writes:  “I think it is clear that the principle that you have to restrain your own behavior for the sake of the communal good has eroded.  People generally recognize laws but not the voluntary restraints that make everyday life more pleasant.”

What is it that we wish to teach our children but to be a mensch.  What is it that we want our students to come away with but to know how to act in an appropriate fashion in our society.  What is it that we should expect from our leaders, scholars, athletes, actors, actresses, and politicians but that they be guided by the fact that there is always somebody watching what they do.  As Derech Eretz Zuta states: “A person should always make a point of knowing before whom he stands, before whom he sits, beside whom he resides, with whom he is conversing and who is a co-signatory to a deed.”

I find it fascinating that the Book of Leviticus, the most technical of all of the Biblical books, begins in a manner which allows for the teaching of an ethical lesson.  Both G-d and Moses are sensitive to the needs of others.  Both G-d and Moses attempt to show that Derech Eretz is necessary in the Divine-human encounter.  Both G-d and Moses recognize that in approaching the other they need to show respect, in word, behavior, and deed.  It is a lesson that should not be lost on us.

Rabbi Vernon Kurtz is rabbi of North Suburban Synagogue Beth El (Conservative).

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