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Rabbi Mark Wildes: MJE, Rosh Hashanah 5775/2014: First day


One of the issues I struggle with is my need for approval. I have spent, and continue to spend, much time and energy trying to get people to like me, be they friends, colleagues, students, donors, my kids, my wife.… I have a very strong need to be liked. Of course it would be hard to be successful as a rabbi, or as a fundraiser, or as a father or husband if people didn’t like me, but it goes deeper. And in the last year, I have found a friend who has made it even easier for me to be “liked.” And that friend is, of course, Facebook. I arrived a little late to the Facebook party, but in a pretty short period of time I accumulated 2700 “friends,” and if I post something really awesome, I can get hundreds of people to ‘like” me!

But Facebook to me is like drugs to an addict, because although it feels good to be liked, ultimately it doesn’t make me any happier. My feelings were confirmed by a study conducted by the University of Michigan which concluded that increased Facebook use actually drives people’s levels of happiness down and increases feelings of loneliness and isolation. But like any addiction, we get a quick high which keeps us coming back for more liking and more approval from other people.

Why do we seek approval from others? And today on Rosh Hashanah when we’re being judged and seeking God’s approval, why does it mean so mean so much to us what others think?

This past summer I had the merit of leading the MJE Trip to Israel, pretty much in the middle of the war in Gaza. The trip was awesome, and besides being inspired by Israel’s incredible resistance, I came away with the following conclusion: Israelis don’t care nearly as much as we do as to what people say or think. I’m not saying they don’t care at all; no-one likes to always be criticized, but from the many soldiers and others we met, and that I have met over the years, Israelis seem to draw their attitude not from what other people think but from what they think is right.

This idea is reflected in a very powerful teaching of the Torah: The book of Genesis tells us that after the flood, which God sent to destroy the world, Noah planted a vineyard and became intoxicated. The Torah describes a very unflattering scene where Noah is found drunk and disrobed in his tent. The reaction of Noah’s 3 sons, Shem, Cham and Yefet, to their father in this state was very different and according to our Sages laid the groundwork for future generations.

Cham, the Torah tells us, gazed at his father. The commentaries explain that he took advantage of his father’s compromised state and violated him. However, Shem and Yefet took a garment, walked backwards so as not to show any disrespect, and covered their father’s nakedness with the cloth.

But in describing this act of respect, the Torah says: “Vayikach Shem Vayefet”: and Shem and Yefet took, but the word Vayikach is in the singular. It means “and he took”, even though it was both Shem and Yefet who took the garment and covered Noah. Rashi, the great Biblical commentator, tells us that Shem initiated the action and Yefet followed him. Therefore continues Rashi: Shem merited the mitzvah of tzitzit and Yefet merited the mitzvah of burial. Just a few verses later (Genesis 9:27), the Torah tells us that Noah blesses his son, Yefet by saying: “yaft elokim leyeft” – that God should grant beauty to Yefet. We have a tradition that whereas the Jewish people come from Shem, the Greek civilization are descendants of Yefet.

What does this all mean?

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchick tz”l speaks about two different motivating factors in human behavior: Etiquette and Ethics. In the words of the Rav: “Ethics obligates a person to do what is right and just, even if he is by himself and there are no other people around who will see him to praise his actions. To the contrary, even if there are other people there who will mock him for his desire to do what is right, he will do what is right because of his strong sense of ethics. Etiquette on the other hand, is a matter of beauty which is dependent upon the input and the approval of other people. Etiquette changes from time to time and from country to country. Etiquette is something that emerges from the way in which something will appear in the eyes of other people.”

Shem, says the Rav, had the courage to be the first one to cover the nakedness of his father, even though no one was telling him do so, because he understood from his sense of ethics that covering his father was the right thing to do. And that’s why we the Jewish people, the descendants of Shem, merited the mitzvah of tzitzit. Tzitzit are worn beneath ones clothing, and so they reflect an inner sense of right and wrong irrespective of what appears on the outside or what others may say.

Yefet on the other hand did not act because it was the right thing to do. He covered his father only after Shem did. And he did so, says the Rav “only so that Shem would look upon him with a good eye…It was only then that he helped, because at this point it was not only a matter of ‘ethics,’ it was a matter of “etiquette”.

Therefore the reward for Yefet is kevurah or burial because the whole idea of burying someone after they have passed stems from the honor we give to the deceased; it just doesn’t look right to casually discard the remains of a person after their soul has departed. It would be the highest disregard of etiquette which is the blessing Noah gave to, that God give him a sense of beauty, of aesthetics…of etiquette.

But ultimately the Divine Presence rests in the tents of Shem and not Yefet because for God to be with us, to dwell in our midst, our actions need to be motivated more by ethics than etiquette. We have to make decisions in life which are based on what’s right and not simply what will bring us greater approval. And in some situations, as in Israel’s case this past summer, were forced to choose: Would Israel act in a way that was morally defensible, or simply in a manner that would gain the world’s approval? Because getting the world’s blessing during this war in Gaza would have meant Israel giving up its moral right to self-defense and keeping its own people in harm’s way. On the intellectual level, everyone knew Israel was justified in doing whatever was necessary to stop the rocket attacks, but Israel still looked bad because innocent children were being killed. Yes, people were aware this was a tactic employed by Hamas – to launch rockets from hospitals, homes and mosques so that when Israel would retaliate, it would look like a monster. But deciding not to take out those rocket installations, not to bomb the tunnels, not to aggressively continue its retaliation simply because it was bringing world condemnation, that would have been choosing etiquette over ethics.

Israelis in general are not as concerned with the way things appear as we are in America, where we are tend to be more self-conscious and immersed in the media. Living among our non-Jewish friends and neighbors with whom we thankfully have good relations, we become overly concerned with the way things appear, and sometimes not enough about what is truly right or wrong. I think we can learn from our Israeli brethren who may not have the same etiquette, but are more focused on the ethics. You probably will never hear an Israeli says “excuse me” when he or she bumps into you on the bus, but only in Israel will you see the bus driver, putting the bus in park, getting up and helping a mother with her carriage onto the bus. He may look gruff and uncaring, but ultimately he does the right thing.

We need to stop caring so much about what others are thinking and be more concerned with what’s right. And as with Israel, sometimes the right thing isn’t always the popular thing. Saying no to a night out with friends when you have a family obligation certainly won’t make you more popular with your friends, but it’s the right thing to do. Not participating in some gossip about a co-worker may cost you some status points in the office, but it’s also the right thing to do.

Asking one’s colleagues to hold a lunch meeting at one of the fine upscale Kosher restaurants in Manhattan may not earn you more popularity, but it’s the Jewish thing to do. There’s a great story, a true one, of a luncheon with prominent lawyers in London who had as their guest speaker, none other than Prince Charles of Wales. One of the lawyers who attended the luncheon was an observant Jew who ordered a kosher meal. Those of you who have done this know that the kosher meal comes double-wrapped in plastic with cutlery that usually breaks when you use it. It can sometimes look a bit messy. As the lawyer was eating his meal another attorney walks by and asks him, “Why do you have to make such a spectacle of yourself? I’m also Jewish you know, why not just eat whatever everyone else is eating?” Later, after Prince Charles finished his presentation and was making his way out of the room, he passed by the table of the observant Jew and took notice of all the plastic. He stopped at the table and asked the Kosher eating Jew why he was eating something different from the rest. The lawyer explained that he observes the Jewish laws of Kashrut. Prince Charles then started to tell him how, as part of his University studies, he attended a theological seminary where they studied the Jewish dietary laws, and the two got into a whole conversation about diet and spirituality. When the other Jewish man overheard the conversation, he walked over and chimed in, “You know, I’m also Jewish.” Prince Charles turned to the man and asked, “So where is your Kosher meal?”

The Kosher man chose Ethics over Etiquette. He put up with a little plastic and flimsy cutlery to follow something in the Torah. To gain other people’s approval, etiquette may win the day, but to gain respect, you need ethics. Having other people approve our actions may make us feel better in the short term, but real happiness can only be attained when we know we’re doing the right thing.

Rosh Hashanah is a good time to ask ourselves what motivates our actions and behavior. Are we acting out of true ethics, or are we simply copying what other people do so we can please our family, friends and colleagues? All good people may have our best interests at heart, but since they too are only human, how do we know their way reflects a true ethic and not simply etiquette? Only God can know what the proper path is in any situation, which is why we consult the Torah when making decisions. Because then we can know we’re making a decision, not simply because it’s what everyone else is doing, but because it’s the right thing.

And so this Rosh Hashanah, let’s stop looking around and start looking up when we’re making important decisions. Those choices and resolutions may not always make us more popular with other people, but if they are informed by something above, by a force greater and wiser than ourselves, then they will no doubt bring us greater meaning and fulfillment. May those choices serve as a merit for us and for our brothers and sisters in Israel, and may Hashem bless us all with a new year of good health, sweetness, and peace.

Shanah Tova.


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