Our members have such interesting stories to tell! At each of our Shammes Committee (aka Board) meetings, a board member is invited to share a bit of his or her Jewish Journey. At our August meeting, Bruce Kochis shared a meaningful moment in his journey that has had important implications for his life.
Jewish Journey by Bruce Kochis
(delivered to the Shammes Committee 17 Av 5776/August 21 2016)
When I talk in front of a group, including a class of students, I’m reminded of the comedian who was performing his stand-up routine when an elderly man in the front row fell asleep and started snoring to beat the band. The comedian stopped and said to the elderly woman sitting next to him, “Ma’am, could you wake your husband up and stop that snoring?” To which the woman replied, “You wake him up; you put him to sleep.”
To give even a synopsis of my Jewish Journey would put you all to sleep and take me too long to wake you all up, so I’ll stick with one of many corners I turned while trying to find the best route to where I wish I knew where I was going.
This turn happened now nearly four years ago at the URJ Bienniel in San Diego. It was a conversation I had with Rabbi Zari. I was President of KHN at the time, so she wanted to touch base with me in that capacity. The Rabbi was, I think it’s fair to say, somewhat exasperated by recent incidents in which a few congregants acted rather rudely toward her. She was upset not so much at the personal level of the exchanges– though that is never any fun as we all know– but because the congregants were acting this way toward their congregation’s rabbi, the spiritual leader of our community. She wanted to talk about ideas on how to address this and in the course of that conversation she mentioned an approach and a book, Derech Eretz, ‘the way of the land’, that lays out the mitzvot and minhagim of Jewish behavior. As a good academic, I immediately ordered the book*, and, lo, a whole new level of Jewish practice opened up. Jewish practice is not just not killing and stealing, it’s not just praying three times a day, or keeping kosher–it’s also about the sacred duties in honoring others, behaving in public, speaking gently with each other, being a good leader and follower, traveling and being a guest. It’s the halacha of being a mensch.
I devoured the book and began to include it into my workshops on Jewish Ethics . . . and in my life. To be sure, not everything in Derech Eretz might be immediately relevant for us today, e.g., “A donkey carrying a load has the right of way over an unloaded donkey.” And some of them are just plain hard for me to do: “If one hears a person make an incorrect statement, he should act as if he did not detect the mistake,” and I’m still not sure why “It is a good custom to donate money to charity before embarking on a trip.” On the other hand, who of us shouldn’t be working on “Refrain from passing judgment on others; instead, look for the merit in other people’s actions” or “Strive to benefit others, not to benefit from others, or “Speak gently. If someone embarrasses or misleads you, do not reciprocate.”
Derech eretz the approach to life is characterized by the following: “The essential ingredients of derech eretz are: impartiality; humility; sensitivity toward the feelings and rights of others; an understanding of human nature; a sense of justice; and respect for each individual and for humanity as a whole.”
In other words, through the Rabbi’s lead and, of course, the study (always study) of derech eretz I began to work out the connections between the thin air of my academic and theological abstractions about Judaism and my earthly learning that being a Jew is also Jewish practice in this everyday world, in everyday encounters, in the small things, in the way we actually do and live with others. It is indeed a journey.
*Derech Eretz: A Torah Guide for Proper Behavior in Everyday Life by Rabbi Shaul Wagschal, 1993, 2012, The Judaica Press.
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