D’var Torah: My Mother’s Lessons: Be Our Best Selves and Greet Others with Kindness
The beginning of this week’s combined parsha, Matot/Masei, instructs, “If a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips.” Basically, it is important to keep our promises. For me, this includes the idea of living up to one’s promise, or potential. My mom taught me this lesson and would often say, “don’t worry about other people, be the best Ed Gelb you can be.”
My mother’s lesson is a take on the classic story of Rabbi Zusha, who said he wasn’t worried that on Judgment Day God would ask him why he wasn’t more like Moshe; he was worried that God would ask him why he was not more like Zusha. All we need to do is be the best version of ourselves that we can be. Camp is a place where we can find our best, true versions of ourselves.
Another lesson my mom taught me is a story she tells about her mother, the late Tybie Capin, that I also find instructive. It is based on Shammai’s teaching to greet everyone with a cheerful countenance. My grandma had a warm and ready smile; she was also a bit of a daydreamer. When she was young she worked at a large department store. One day as she walked down a long aisle, she noticed someone familiar smiling as she came towards her. Grandma nodded and smiled back, and the other person did the same. There was another exchange or two as they neared each other, until my grandmother suddenly realized that there was a mirrored wall at the end of the aisle – and she had been smiling at herself the whole time!
My mom takes the lesson further. What happens when the smiles are not forthcoming? Let’s say you enter the Chadar Ochel (Dining Hall) tonight and are trying to find a seat. As you approach, the person you want to sit next to scowls, which makes you feel bad. But, if the person just smiles, you will feel warm and welcome. What a difference being pleasant can make!
The second parsha we read is called Masei, which means journeys. The book of Bemidbar ends with the Israelites still journeying in the desert. For many of us, our journey over the past 18 months has taken us in directions we did not foresee. However, the lessons of striving to be the best versions of ourselves we can be and greeting others with kindness are applicable on any journey and in any time.
As we start our camp journey, let us strive to fulfill our promise and spread kindness. Shabbat Shalom.