Everyone Deserves Respect
Re'eh (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17 )
What make a person respectable? Back in biblical times there was hardly anyone with less status than an indentured servant - someone who had to work without pay as a virtual slave to pay off his debts. Yet the Torah this week teaches us that the wealthy person who had such servants was required to treat them just as well as he treated himself. He had to give them the same high-quality food, drink, accommodations etc. If he ate caviar - they ate caviar! This is a lesson for all times that every human being, regardless of his position or 'status,' deserves respect. No one should be looked down upon.
In our story, a kid gets a powerful lesson in what makes someone respectable.
"Maybe you ought to tie this chicken down onto the plate, because it's so undercooked I'm afraid it's going to jump up and run away!" said Dana with a sneer as she took her portion from the lady on the Camp Chautagua lunch line.
Dana figured her parents paid good money to send her to this camp, so why not let the 'hired help' like the cook and the janitor have a piece of her mind when she felt they were slacking off. The middle-aged woman who cooked and served the food held her tongue as the Dana stormed off. Unfortunately, she had gotten used to the girl's daily disrespectful comments.
Dana had just gotten up from eating, leaving her tray for the janitor to take care of it, when she saw a friendly looking kid wearing a cool T-shirt and decided to strike up a conversation. "So what bunk are you in?" she asked.
"Well," the kid, named Judy, explained, "I don't actually live in any bunk. My parents are, um, part of the camp staff, so we all live in a bungalow on the camp's grounds."
"Wow, that's really neat." Dana said. "So, you kind of have the best of both worlds, being at camp and being home at the same time."
"Yeah, I guess so" said Judy with a smile.
The two became fast friends and one day Judy got an idea. "Hey Dana, how would you like to join me and my family for dinner tonight at our bungalow?" she asked brightly.
"Wow, thanks, I'd love to," Dana replied. "It'll be great to eat a normal home-cooked meal for a change instead of the garbage the camp tries to pass off for food!"
Judy's face suddenly darkened.
"Um, on second thought, maybe it might not be so good for you to come. I mean we eat much later than the campers do, not 'til 7:30, and I don't want you to have to..."
"No way!" assured Dana. "It's worth waiting all night to eat something decent for a change. No matter how many times I tell the cook what I think of the food, she just doesn't seem to get it." Dana noticed that Judy's face looked really red; maybe she hadn't put on enough sunscreen at the pool.
"Really Dana, come to think of it, maybe you won't be so ... um ... comfortable with my family..."
"Don't worry," Dana waved her off. "It'll be just fine. See you tonight at 7:30. I've gotta run now to horseback riding, bye!"
Before Judy could answer, the girl was gone.
That evening Dana put on her most 'formal' clothes and even bought a nice box of chocolates at the camp's canteen to bring along. On the way there she realized Judy had never actually told her what her parents' positions were at the camp. Perhaps they were the camp directors, or maybe even the owners. That would be neat.
She found the address of bungalow Judy had told her. It was pretty small, but after all, it was only a summer place. Putting on her best smile, she rang the doorbell. Judy answered. Maybe that sunburn was worse than she thought because her friend was still beet-red.
"Hey Judy! I made it. And here are some chocolates for your parents." She walked toward the couple standing back in the room. "Thank you so much. It was really so nice of you to ... uh ... uh..."
Dana stopped in mid-sentence. It was the cook and the janitor! What were they doing here? Then it hit her like a ton of bricks and Dana turned red enough to make Judy look pale. They weren't just the cook and janitor, they were Judy's parents!
After another awkward moment they all sat down to eat. Dana couldn't tell if the food was good or not because she was too embarrassed to taste anything except her own foot she had put in her mouth. Judy's mom and dad were actually very nice to her and Dana felt so bad about how she had treated them with so little respect.
Well, after what felt like hours, the meal finally ended and Dana went back to her bunk. She and Judy were never quite as close again. Dana felt bad that her big mouth had lost her a friend, but was grateful she had learned a big lesson about how important it is to give everyone respect.
Q. How did Dana feel about the cook and janitor at first?
A. She felt like since they did what she considered unimportant jobs, she didn't have to treat them with respect.
Q. How did she feel in the end?
A. When she found out they were her friend's parents, she felt embarrassed at how she had treated them and learned how we should respect everyone - whether we feel they are doing something we consider important or not.
Q. What lesson did Dana learn from what happened?
A. She had always felt that it was okay to look down on and act disrespectfully towards hired workers and other people she thought were low on society's status ladder. What happened with Judy gave her a jolt and made her much more sensitive to the value of respecting everyone without exception.
Q. Why do you think seeing the cook and janitor were Judy's parents changed Dana's feelings toward them?
A. When we fail to respect someone it is because we are not looking at them as a real, feeling people, but rather almost as objects such as 'the janitor,' 'the beggar' etc. Once Dana met these people in the context of being parents of a close friend she was forced to see them as real people and hence treat them with human respect.
Ages 10 and Up
Q. Why does a human being intrinsically deserve respect?
A. The Torah teaches that a human being is more than just an intelligent animal. We believe that each person has been created in God's image, which means that God has invested each person with the unique Godly gift of free ethical choice and great potential to bring good and Godliness into the world. By showing respect to all humans, even those who have chosen to misuse their gift, we are acknowledging that gift and showing respect for God as its giver.
Q. Does a person's external status ever warrant our giving them extra respect?
A. The Torah does take into consideration a person's external status as a factor in respect given. For instance,it is proper to especially honor our parents, the aged, and those who are distinguished in wisdom, governmental position, and in certain cases even wealth. However,there is a certain baseline respect which is the right and privilege of every human being, and we must be careful never to let that lapse.