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Random thoughts of a random chappy


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It is a recurring current theme of politicians and social commentators that modern Britain is seriously deficient in the matter of respect.  So much so that “respect” is increasingly used as a political tag designed to attract automatic approval and has in at least one case been incorporated into the title of a political movement.
But while everyone can agree that respect, like apple pie and motherhood, is a good thing, unlike apple pie and motherhood it is difficult or impossible to define what is meant by respect; and one suspects that it means very different things to different people, and is often used as a conveniently empty label to attach to a person’s individual desiderata.
The Torah is very strong on manners generally.  The rabbis even ventured the radical Talmudic assertion derech eretz kodmo laTorah which can be roughly rendered into English as good behaviour precedes, and is a prerequisite of, Torah observance.  Radical, because it appears to suggest not merely that good behaviour between humans is a crucial part of the Torah – a concept with which we are all familiar – but actually that good behaviour is a value which exists outside and independent of the Torah.  Which would be radical indeed, and even blasphemous, were it not for the other rabbinic assertion histakel b’oraisoh u’boro olmo – that God looked into the Torah and created the world.  In other words, the world was created to reflect and implement Torah values, rather than the Torah being created to make sense of the world.  Derech eretz kodmo laTorah is therefore an assertion that the requirements of derech eretz belong in some ineffable way to that part of the Torah which exists independently of the world, and is not merely a terrestrial detail provided to further implementation of the underlying Torah values.
The Torah does not offer us anywhere a compendious definition of derech eretz.  But it does offer sufficient instances and examples for us to be able to construct a workable set of guidelines.
One example occurs in this week’s parashah.  A person who finds that he has a tzora’as patch on the walls of his or her house, is required to send for a Cohen to pronounce whether it is or is not actually tzora’as.  And the Torah prescribes the words to be used in asking the Cohen – “k’nega niro li baboyis” (“there is something on my house that appears to me like nega tzora’as”) (Vayikro 14:35).  Rashi brings the Talmudic explanation that the owner of the house may be more of an expert than the Cohen in the appearance of tzora’as – but nevertheless out of derech eretz he or she is to say to the Cohen no more than “I think I may have a problem – what do you think?”.  The Cohen may have to ask the house owner for expert guidance on the matter, but in this way the decencies are preserved and the separate roles of each, Cohen and expert, are acknowledged.
And that is a major key to a practical meaning of respect, although doubtless there are other important facets of it too.  Respect is, at least in part, about acknowledging other peoples’ roles, and not trying to usurp them.  The Pirkei Ovos remind us that everyone has a unique task to perform, even if not everybody’s hour has yet arrived, so to speak.  The Chofetz Chayim reminds us that in asking for peace we mention the peace of the heavens (oseh sholom bimromov …) not because the heavens are a field of inactivity but because each celestial body appears to know and rigidly stick to its allotted path, even if it passes within inches of another’s.
There is much wrong with today’s society, and also much right.  Those who are continually searching for ways of improving the nation’s general well-being are certainly right to emphasise the importance of respect in so far as it amounts to an appreciation by each person of everybody else’s unique roles: each person should recognise his or her own limitations as well as his or her own abilities, so that we can draw on others’ potentials to reflect our own limitations.


Written by Daniel Greenberg

April 28, 2006 at 11:32 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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