Setting a New Standard of Ethical Behavior
(Updated and revised from Parashiot Behar-Bechukotai 5761-2001)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week, we once again read two parashiot, Behar and Bechukotai.

In parashat Behar, in Leviticus 25:14, we find the expression, אַל תּוֹנוּ אִישׁ אֶת אָחִיו, Do not aggrieve one another. Then, in Leviticus 25:17, we encounter what seems to be a repetition of the previous verse, וְלֹא תוֹנוּ אִישׁ אֶת עֲמִיתוֹ, Each of you shall not aggrieve one another.

The rabbis tell us that the first mention of אַל תּוֹנוּ teaches that it is forbidden to hurt people with words or misleading behavior in business. Whereas, the second mention of וְלֹא תוֹנוּ applies to personal conduct.

Contemporary society has so dramatically lowered the standards of proper behavior and comportment, that, unfortunately, hurtful words are hardly considered a bad thing. We’ve reached the absurd point where a children’s rhyme, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never harm me,” dictates much of adult behavior. In other words, hurtful words are routinely accepted, as long as no one is physically harmed.

During his tenure as Mayor of New York City, Rudy Giuliani, as part of his efforts to reduce crime in the city, developed, with his then police commissioner, what is now known as the “Broken Windows Theory” of criminology. They argued, that if the authorities could early on stop the petty crime, if they could nip the smaller problems in the bud, then there would be much less serious crime. It could be similarly argued, that if society and its educators would teach all citizens the finer essences of life, the so-called “little stuff,”–caring, concern and empathy, then a new tone could be set for our world, where noble aspirations and expectations would invariably increase.

We often hear the expression, “Don’t sweat the small stuff”–which is true perhaps for victims. But, perpetrators should never 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.” How sad that standards and expectations have been so reduced, because we surely know that small acts of kindness can often have profound impact on people’s lives.

I heard a moving story of a young religious man who found someone’s personal phone book in a phone booth (must have been a very long time ago!). Because of the Torah mitzvah of הֲשָׁבַת אֲבֵדָהhashavat aveida, of returning lost objects, he started calling the names in the book that he had found, to try to locate its 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 a religious Jew he felt obligated to fulfill the mitzvah of “hashavat aveida,” of returning lost objects.

It turned out that it was indeed the woman’s daughter’s phone book. The finder and the owner made a date to meet so the woman could retrieve her property. When the young man returned the book to the rightful owner, the woman was overwhelmed by his kindness, far more than would ordinarily be expected. She explained to the young man, “You not only returned my phone book, you returned my mother to me! You see, when I became religiously observant 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. My mother was so impressed by the extraordinary effort you made to return my phone book 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, declaring that society can 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.

The festival of Lag Ba’Omer (literally the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer) will start on Monday Night, May 11th, and continue all day Tuesday, May 12, 2020. The Omer period extends for 49 days from the second night of Passover through the day before the festival of Shavuot. The 33rd day is considered a special day because, on that day, the students of Rabbi Akiva ceased dying and because it marks the anniversary of the passing of the great Talmudic sage, Rabbi Simon bar Yochai.