September 7, 2006
God Is in the Details—Even in the Busy Carpool Lane
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 on 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" (Feldheim, 1993), an introduction to the subject, by Rabbi Shaul Wagschal:
To these venerable laws I would like to add three suggestions of my own that will give parents frequent opportunities to teach by example.
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."