I have observed a recurring theme in my own writing. In past articles on this site, I have advised:
- That, if we arrive at shul and someone is sitting in our usual place (makom kavua), that we not say, “You’re in my seat,” but rather just sit close by. This is actually the halacha, plus we won’t embarrass and inconvenience a visitor;
- That we not use Hebrew or Yiddish words like “goy” to describe people outside of our own communities. Even if the words are not inherently offensive and no affront is intended, others find them rude and condescending, if not overtly racist;
- That rather than marginalizing converts, we embrace them and welcome them into the community (which is actually a commandment repeated numerous times throughout the Torah);
- That we call people by the names they want to be called – doing otherwise is immature and disrespectful;
- That we not make assumptions about Jews of color or ask them questions that we wouldn’t ask people of our own races;
- Etc., etc., etc.
All of these things boil down to one thing: just be nice.
This is something we shouldn’t need to be told as our literature is replete with this message. Nevertheless periodic reminders are necessary. Here’s an abbreviated history of “Just Be Nice”:
For starters, the Torah itself tells us, “Love your neighbor as you do yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).
In the Sifra, Rabbi Akiva calls this mitzvah the central theme of the Torah. The scholar Ben Azzai, however, says that a different verse is greater still. He proposes Genesis 5:1 as the central theme of the Torah. This verse simply says, “This is the book of the generations of Adam.” The danger with “loving our neighbor as ourselves” is the human tendency to justify hurting others because they fail to meet our definition of a “neighbor.” That is not the case with “This is the book of the generations of Adam.” That verse reminds us that all of us, regardless of race, religion or politics, are all descended from the same progenitors. Differences notwithstanding, all of us constitute the family of mankind.
In a famous incident, a non-Jew approached the sage Hillel saying, “Accept me as a convert on the condition that you can teach me the entire Torah while I stand on one foot.” Hillel replied, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the entirety of the Torah, all the rest is commentary – now go and study it!” (Talmud Shabbos 31a).
The Sage Shammai taught us that we should greet everyone with a cheerful countenance (Avos 1:15). The Talmud tells us that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai made it a practice to greet everyone he encountered first – not just Jews but even idolators that he met in the marketplace (Brachos 17a).
King David taught that “The world was built on kindness” (Psalms 89:3).
Rashi on Deuteronomy 34:8 cites Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, which observes that Aaron’s passing was mourned more than Moshe’s. The reason, we are told, is because as great as Moshe was, it was Aaron whose life work was making peace between people.
The Talmud in Sukkah (49b) says that kindness is greater than charity in three ways: charity is performed with one’s money, while kindness can be performed with one’s money or with his body; charity is extended only to the poor, while kindness can be extended to both the poor and the rich; charity can be given only to the living, while kindness can be shown to both the living and the deceased.
Consider this: Exodus 23:5 tells us, “If you see your enemy’s donkey struggling under its load…help him, even many times.” Now, one might think that this mitzvah is strictly because of tzaar baalei chaim – preventing needless suffering to animals – but the Talmud teaches us that it is also to overcome our tendency to mistreat one another. We are told explicitly that if one has the opportunity to assist either a friend or an enemy in unloading an animal, he must assist the enemy first in order to defeat the natural inclination to spite him (Baba Metzia 32b).
There are many more sources that one could cite. We see from all this that being kind is the central theme of the Torah – according to Hillel, it’s the entirety of the Torah! The world was built on kindness, which can, should and must be performed with everyone – rich and poor, living and dead, friend and enemy alike!
None of this means that one can’t have their own opinion or that we all have to be lockstep on matters of religion, politics or anything else. How boring would that be? We can disagree. There are times we probably should disagree. But how do we disagree? Are we respectful like the Sages Hillel and Shammai were to one another, or hostile and confrontational like Korach was to Moshe? (A reference to Avos 5:17.)
Throughout the Talmud, nobody disagreed more than the school of Hillel and the school of Shammai. Their disagreements, however, were based upon a mutual respect and a shared interest in discovering the truth. Despite their longstanding debates on a wide array of subjects, the Talmud (Yevamos 14a) tells us that they did not refrain from marrying into one another’s families (let alone eating in one another’s homes!). This doesn’t mean that they ignored their own understandings of the law. Rather, they knew that they could rely upon one another not to feed them anything they would consider inappropriate, let alone marry anyone they would consider prohibited.
Think I’m wrong? Totally off-base? Feel free to disagree. Just, please… try to do so kindly. I will try my best to do likewise.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.
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