Back to the Basics

A Keith Haring, 'Holding Heart,' Graffiti Art

They say that common sense is not so common; unfortunate, yet true.
This week my friends and I decided to go for lunch at a Kosher establishment.
Yes, I was hungry.
Yes, I was told that the food would take 30 minutes.
Yes, I was informed that the menu was limited.
Nonetheless, my friends and I ordered.
I then started to watch everyone around us getting their food before us.
Yes, I was having a good chat with my girlfriends and enjoying their company, but I got agitated.
Okay, they said it could take 30 minutes.
40 minutes passed.
45 minutes passed.
“Excuse me”, I called out to the clearly stressed-out waitress, “When is our food coming?” “It is on its way,” she responded, fraught.
50 minutes passed,
An hour passed.

This is getting ridiculous, I thought to myself, and come on, our orders were pretty basic. I asked again, this time a little more unsettled, but what I perceived as firm and fair. After all, when you go out to eat, you expect a certain level of service, right?

I did feel bad when I asked again… agh ‘don’t shoot the messenger’, I mused, it is not the waitress’ fault. Yet, my friends reassured me that I was still in line, and I was. However, when we went to pay, what we saw made me sick to my stomach and awfully uncomfortable. A lady had come back in to speak to the frazzled waitress and apologised for her rude friend, who was apparently quite impolite and impatient whilst they were dining. The waitress then burst into uncontrollable tears; she could not stop.

The flood gates had opened, and all was unleashed.

This lovely, kind international woman then began to express how stressful, ill-mannered, vulgar, entitled (and other unpleasant things) the customers had been for the last three years she had been working at this establishment.
I felt saddened, embarrassed, and had much remorse.
I had added to this poor women’s strife with no intention whatsoever; I thought I wasn’t even that impolite, but that was beside the point.
This teary outburst (to say the least) was a huge wake-up call and a slap in the face for me personally, and I’m sure for others.

We need to go Back to the Basics
For those wondering what the basics are, I will clearly state them:

Treating ALL people, regardless of their jobs, gender, or status, with basic respect and common decency.

Hakarat HaTov
Literally translated as “recognising the good,” Hakarat HaTov means having gratitude and manners. This means saying please and thank you and using a respectful tone.

Dan L’chaf Zechut
Our Sages tell us that one needs to be ‘Dan L’chaf Zechut’ (Pirkei Avot 2:5). This means judging everyone favourably and giving them the benefit of the doubt. It is impossible to be in one’s shoes; therefore, one can never truly judge or assume. This can even extend to being at a café or restaurant and getting frustrated that your food hasn’t arrived. Perhaps think to yourself, maybe they are understaffed? Maybe the chef is sick today? Maybe there is a supply chain crisis, so they cannot receive the produce they usually have? There are a host of reasons why things can go wrong; try to be understanding and patient and give the benefit of the doubt.

Derech Eretz
Derech Eretz has a multitude of meanings; however, the most well-known saying is “Derech Eretz Kadma L’Torah.” This comes from Rabbi Ishmael, the son of Rav Nachman, who said: Derech Eretz precedes Torah by 26 generations since it is written: “and to guard the way to the Tree of Life” (Genesis 3). “Way” is the Derech Eretz, and only after that comes the “Tree of Life”, the Torah. (Vayikra Rabba 9:3) This Midrash demonstrates and reveals that common courtesies and kind behaviour is of utmost importance and comes even before learning Torah.

To illustrate further, I will share a Chassidic story that comes to mind.

The first Chabad Rebbe, Reb Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), commonly known as the Alter Rebbe, shared a house with his eldest son, Rabbi Dov Ber (1773-1825), known as the Mitteler Rebbe, who later succeeded him. One night, when Rabbi Dov Ber was wholly engrossed in the study of Torah, his son, who fell out of his cradle, began to cry. So engaged in the study of Torah, Rabbi Dov Ber neglected to hear the cry of his own newborn son. However, the baby’s grandfather, the Alter Rebbe, who was likewise immersed in the study of Torah, and was on another level of the home, still managed to hear the baby’s cries. Quickly, without hesitation or doubt, the Alter Rebbe left his holy books and studies, walked down the stairs, picked up the crying baby and soothed it until it calmed down. Rabbi Dov Ber remained completely oblivious to the situation and was still absorbed in his studies throughout all of this. Consequently, the Alter Rebbe came to his son and rebuked him by saying:

“No matter how engrossed one may be in the loftiest occupation, one must never remain insensitive to the cry of a child.”

This story is powerful, and the lessons are endless, namely, never ignore the cry of a Jewish Neshama (both physically and spiritually), yet this story has even more insight. This story teaches one that kindness, understanding and common sense come first and foremost, even before learning Torah or being a devout Jew.

There are countless more stories to prove this point, such as the story of a gentile who wanted to convert to Judaism on one foot. The great sage Hillel said, “What you would not want to be done to you, do not do to others.” the rest is interpretation. (Talmud, Shabbas, 31a). And as the holy sage Rabbi Akiva preached, “loving your neighbour as yourself, (Vayikra 19:18), is the fundamental principle of the Torah.” (Midrash Sifra). Yet, ironically his students, although they loved each other, sadly did not respect each other and therefore passed from a terrible plague, which is why the Omer period is a time of deep introspection and mourning.

Many of us know these stories but acting on these stories and fully processing these messages are entirely different.

I am far from perfect, and as I write this blog; I realise how much more I need to grow and work on myself (as apparent). Yet, it made me so sad, troubled, and uncomfortable to witness this lovely waitress’ outburst of tears due to her poor treatment by customers. It was even more devastating that she decided to quit her job, as a result of this ongoing disrespect.

We know that as Jewish people, we need to be an “Or Lagoyim,” translated as “A light unto the nations” (Isaiah 42:6). We all have an obligation to sanctify G-d’s name wherever we are (known as a Kiddush Hashem), and we cannot do the opposite and desecrate His name (Chillul Hashem), (Leviticus 22:32). Our actions have consequences, not just for ourselves but also for who we represent as the people of G-d. Trust me, I can personally relate to how frustrating and challenging this can be, yet I can’t even begin to stress how crucial it is to be mindful of our actions. Forget even the fact that we need to make a Kiddush Hashem; as human beings, we should have the basic regard for everyone we encounter.

To be arrogant, entitled, unpleasant or rude whilst being an upstanding Jewish person is an oxymoron.

To be a Jewish person is to hold the Torah true to you; what does that mean? To be a mensch. Yes, super simple – that’s all it comes down to.

Having basic consideration, common decency, and kindness is what Hashem wants from us. He expects it from us so tremendously that we must do so even if we need to ‘neglect’ Torah study or prayers. To “love thy neighbour as yourself” and do acts of kindness is one of the pillars that this world stands on. (Pirkei Avot 1:2).What makes Hashem most happy (I can assure you) is when His creations treat each other with respect. In fact, the Jewish people could only receive the Torah when they were unified, which is why they were considered at Mount Sinai like, “One person with one heart,” “K’ish Echad B’lev Echad.” (Rashi, Shemot 19:2). It is only through acts of kindness and being a mensch that G-d will be able to dwell in this world comfortably. Though somber and appalling, that afternoon was a huge wake-up call.

If we want to have a good life, we need to treat others with dignity – easy right?

About the Author
Born and raised in the heart of Melbourne's Jewish Community, Chavi now resides in Sydney (Bondi) with her husband Ezry, and works as a Jewish Studies Educator at Moriah College. Currently studying a double degree, majoring in history and philosophy, Chavi is passionate about the Chassidic masters and the mystical teachings of the Torah.
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