“Setting A New Standard of Ethics”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

This coming week, we once again read two parashiot, Behar and Bechukotai. In parashat Behar, Leviticus 25, verse 14, we find the expression, “Al to’nu ish et ah’chiv,” Do not aggrieve one another. Then again, verse 17 reads, “V’lo to’nu eesh et a’mito,” Each of you shall not aggrieve one another.

The rabbis tell us that the first mention of al to’nu teaches that it is forbidden to hurt people with words or misleading behavior in business. Whereas, the second mention of v’lo to’nu applies to personal conduct.

Today, in contemporary society, we’ve dramatically lowered the standard so that hurtful words are not really considered a bad thing. We’ve reached the absurd point where we commonly say, “Sticks and stones may hurt my bones, but names will never harm me.” In other words, we routinely accept hurtful words as long as we are not physically harmed. Well, I think New York City Mayor, Rudy Giuliani, has a point. If we can stop the petty crime, if we can nip problems early in the bud, then we will have much less serious crime. If we can teach people about the finer things in life, the refined things in life, the little stuff, then we can set a tone for our world where expectations are high.

We often hear the expression, “Don’t sweat the small stuff”–which is true perhaps for victims. But, perpetrators should not think that it’s small stuff. Small stuff is really big stuff.

In fact, we’ve reached the point where an act of simple kindness or even an act of simple honesty, acts that should be expected as normal and routine, are now considered extraordinary. It’s so sad, that we’ve been so reduced, because we surely know that little acts of kindness can often make profound impacts on people’s lives.

Not long ago, I heard a moving story of a young religious man who found someone’s lost personal telephone diary in a phone booth. Because of the mitzvah of hashavat aveida, of returning lost objects, he started calling the names in the phone book that he had found, to try to locate the diary’s rightful owner. His efforts were unsuccessful until he reached a woman in Florida who told him that she suspected that the phone book might very well be her daughter’s. Before getting off the phone, the woman asked the caller why he was so keen to find the rightful owner. He told her that as an Orthodox Jew he felt obligated to fulfill the mitzvah of hashavat aveida, of returning lost objects.

It turned out that it was indeed the diary of the woman’s daughter. The founder, and the owner made a date to meet so the woman could retrieve her diary. When the young man returned the diary to the rightful owner, the woman was simply overwhelmed by his kindness, far more than would ordinarily be expected. She explained to the young man, “You not only returned my diary, you returned my mother to me. You see, when I became a religiously observant Jew several years ago, my mother was so distraught, that she stopped speaking to me. She thought that I had joined a cult, and felt that everything that I was doing was crazy. She was so impressed by the extraordinary effort you made to return a diary to its rightful owner, that for the first time she understood the validity of my lifestyle. As a result of your kindness, we’ve been reconciled.”

No one should be expected to tolerate “sticks and stones” and physical beatings. Judaism, however, goes much further, by declaring that society dare not tolerate physical violence or hurtful words and bad names. Judaism, you see, sets a very high standard. It aims for Utopia. And who knows, maybe because of its high expectations we will actually encounter much more exceptional behavior, and actually experience a taste of the World to Come, even in this world.

May you be blessed.