Preparation for the High Holidays means engaging in cheshbon hanefesh, accounting of the soul. This includes taking a personal inventory of your own behavior and the lessons you may unwittingly be teaching your children. In Judaism, God is in the details, and one of the most important details is everyday courtesy. The rabbis teach that respectfulness and courtesy are redeeming virtues even when the Jewish people do not fulfill the other precepts of the Torah. They call these practices derech eretz, and say: “A Torah scholar who does not have derech eretz is worse than a dead animal.”
Whoa, Nelly. In our competitive, overscheduled world, we so often get in the habit of looking for shortcuts and finding creative justifications for breaking rules and putting our own needs ahead of those of the community that it’s easy to forget that our children are watching.
You need look no further than the carpool drop-off lane at your child’s school to know exactly what I’m talking about. Rudeness is so rampant that administrators nationwide are forced to write parents letters begging them to be polite and follow the rules. I know, because I have a collection of these letters. They range from moving sermons to stand-up comedy routines, but all have a shared goal: to convince parents — those same parents who so badly want children to follow rules at home — to follow carpool rules that are designed for safety, efficiency and fairness.
All of us do things we don’t want our children to emulate, more often than we realize and often in undramatic, everyday ways. The High Holidays are a good time to switch gears and to find ways to practice derech eretz, beginning with the details of daily living. Our sages have plenty of suggestions for how to do this. The rules are as sensitive, countercultural and ethically sharp today as they were 2,000 years ago. Here are some of my personal favorites. Many of these laws come from “Guide to Derech Eretz,” an introduction to the subject by Rabbi Shaul Wagschal.
To protect a rabbi from possible embarrassment, you shouldn’t ask a question if you suspect he may not know the answer.
Invite guests to Shabbat dinner by Wednesday so they won’t think the invitation is an afterthought.
In the days before locks, people were required to knock on the door of their own house so that they wouldn’t startle those already home. The proof text? God stood by the portal of the Garden of Eden and summoned Adam, as the verse says, “And the Lord called to Adam and said to him, ‘Where are you?’ “
Laws of lashon hara prohibit gossip, even in its most subtle, peripheral form, called avak lashon hara, the dust of gossip. For example, the rabbis warn us never to praise anyone too highly because too much praise can invite the other person to compare the image you’re presenting to his own.
If the court sentences a man to death by hanging, one must never say to one of his relatives, “Hang up the towel,” because the word hang evokes shameful memories.
When the rabbis noted that the rich brought their bikkurim, or first fruit offerings, in silver bowls and the poor in woven baskets, they instituted a “baskets only” rule.
When dancing on certain holidays, some of the daughters of the rich exchanged dresses with the daughters of the poor in order that the latter would not be embarrassed.
To these venerable laws I would like to add three suggestions of my own that will give parents frequent opportunities to teach by example.
1. A parent must lay down his or her phone when greeting his child. The laws of derech eretz state that when in public, you should try to greet others as soon as you spot them so they won’t think you’re ignoring them or trying to avoid them.
Your child deserves as much consideration. Get off the cell phone before they get in the car. If the phone rings during the first few minutes of your greeting, don’t answer it. Think of the phone as the snake in the garden. It’s an alluring temptation to always connect, but the caller knows how to leave a message. If you don’t answer the phone immediately, your child gets a message too — that greeting someone in person takes precedence over any other activity.
2. It is forbidden to cut ahead in the carpool line. Why? Because it is a theft of time. The Babylonian Talmud explores the problem of two boats simultaneously approaching a bottleneck in a river. If it is impossible for both to pass together, they should compromise in the following way: one boat goes first, and the captain of this boat compensates the second boat for the time that it lost waiting. What is your compensation for waiting your turn in the carpool lane? The knowledge that you are teaching your child patience and courtesy.
3. A mother or father shall not fib on a child’s behalf, not even to maintain the purity of the college transcript. In my travels to schools around the country I hear stunning examples of parents who commit unethical acts in the name of helping their children — the father who signed his daughter’s name to an e-mail he wrote to her English teacher contesting a grade; the mother who rewrote her son’s college application essay without his knowledge; the parents who research and even write their children’s papers for them. The rabbis say that one should not break a promise to a child, because doing so will teach the child to lie. If you tweak the rules for your children, you are breaking the agreement you made with them when they were young. Back then, you taught them to tell the truth. When they see your hypocrisy they will lose respect for you, imitate your behavior, or both.
Jewish law provides rules that are meant to be followed even when your daughter absolutely must get to the orthodontist on time, even when you’re tempted to say, “Just this once.”
The commandment to honor one’s parents helps elevate the laws of derech eretz to prominence in our High Holiday inventory. We can ask, “Do I deserve the reverence of my child? Am I the kind of parent my child can learn from and be proud of?”
Whatever motivates you — your entry ticket to the gates of heaven, how your children will treat your grandchildren, or your child’s next letter of recommendation — this is the time to think about not only crimes but misdemeanors and, if we are right by the rabbis, even dust.
Wendy Mogel is a clinical psychologist. She is the author of “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teaching to Raise Self-reliant Children.” She is currently writing a book for parents of teenagers, “The Blessing of a B Minus.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.