Re'eh 5781: America’s Tipping Point
Re'eh (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17 )
GOOD MORNING! The Olympics always seem to bring out a certain type of American exceptionalism (though, perhaps, not so much this year). This has engendered some worldwide resentment; though, as a people, Americans generally have a very mixed international reputation. Of course, Americans don’t exactly endear themselves to foreigners when they travel around the world and ask questions like, “Why don’t you speak English?” and “How much is that in real money?”
The litany of complaints ranges from Americans being misunderstood as in, “Americans happily go to war anywhere in the world and are constantly shooting each other,” to perhaps justifiable, “They eat supersized portions of horribly unhealthy foods,” to just plain stupid, “Those people go shopping in their pajamas.” Of course, Americans know that these perceptions are just manifestations of global jealousy.
Unfortunately, these attitudes have also led to some systemic anti-Americanism. How often have we seen American initiatives voted down at the UN by appalling numbers? Sometimes it seems like it’s almost 191-2 (America and Israel). More troubling, according to Andrei Markovits, professor of comparative politics at the University of Michigan, this anti-Americanism has also cultivated a new strain of antisemitism.
But this is not going to be another depressing column about the growth of worldwide antisemitism (maybe next week we’ll discuss Ben and Jerry’s foray into this despicable behavior). Instead, I want to highlight an area in which Americans are truly exceptional; something I think says a lot about the character of the American people.
There is at least one area in which Americans are unsurpassed: Americans are GREAT tippers. We tip servers, cab drivers, valets, hairdressers, bellhops, shoe shines, hotel maids ... the list always seems to be growing. In his book Keep the Change, author Steve Dublanica estimates that American wait staff alone earn about $46 billion a year in tips.
But this concept needs further exploration. Did you ever wonder why, when checking in at a hotel you tip the bell person and chambermaid, but not the person who checked you in? Or when shopping, you tip the person who carries your bags to the car but not the cashier? When ordering food in a restaurant, you tip the waitress, but if you go to the counter to order then you generally don’t tip the person behind the counter (and even if you throw some change in a “tip jar” it rarely equals 20% of the bill).
When do we instinctively give a tip and when do we not give one? In fact, what is the purpose of giving a tip? This week’s Torah reading provides us with a remarkable insight into the concept of gratuities.
This week’s Torah portion discusses the treatment of a Jewish slave. In truth, the word slave in this context is a terrible misnomer. A Jewish slave is actually an indentured servant – a person who, out of desperation for funds, has sold his services for up to six years. Furthermore, Jewish law has a very unique perspective on this servitude.
The Talmud states (Kiddushin 20a) that anyone who acquires a Jewish “slave” has actually acquired a “master” for himself. The reason for this is that there are very specific laws in how this “slave” must be treated. According to Jewish law, if a master has only one pillow he must give it to his servant. Similarly, if he has a high quality mattress (e.g. made from cooling memory foam) and a poor quality mattress (e.g. made of bundled straw) he must give the servant the better mattress.
This applies to foodstuffs and other things as well. For example, a master is prohibited from eating bread from fine flour and giving his servant bread from coarse flour. Likewise, he cannot drink fine aged wine and give his servant MD 20/20.
Additionally, a master cannot give his servant overly demeaning things to do (like carrying his dirty clothes from a bathhouse), endless work, or just plain “busy work” to keep him occupied. He is likewise prohibited from giving him work that could be deemed humiliating.
In this week’s Torah portion we find an additional obligation:
“And when you send him out free from you, you shall not let him go away empty handed. You shall furnish him liberally out of your flock, and out of your threshing floor, and out of your winepress; of that with which Hashem your God has blessed you, you shall give to him” (Deuteronomy 15:13-14).
The Torah charges us with giving a gift to our Jewish servants when they leave our service; the Hebrew word for this is hanaka. Rashi (ad loc) explains that this comes from the Hebrew word for adornment. Similarly, the word anak is used in scriptures to mean necklace (Song of Songs 4:9).
(An interesting side note; in Hebrew giants are referred to as anakim. This is explained in the Talmud (Sotah 34b), “Because they wear the sun around the neck like a necklace.” Meaning that when a person looks up at them it seems as if they are “wearing” the sun around their neck.)
On this verse, Rashi explains that you have to give the freed slave something that makes it clear that you have given him a gift.
Why are we obligated to give him a gift at all? He was already paid in advance for all of his years of servitude, so why does the Torah place an obligation to bestow him with a parting gift?
Additionally, this reference to a necklace indicates that he needs to leave our service bejeweled. But what does that really mean? He isn’t actually given jewelry; as the verses go on to explain, and further elucidated in the Talmud and codified by Maimonides (Laws of Slaves 3:14), a Hebrew servant who has finished his service receives food and food related items. What is this reference to being bejeweled?
Clearly, the Torah is obligating us that when a servant leaves our service we are to give him a gift or a “tip.” From here we see the reason behind tipping. We give a tip when someone performs a personal service for us.
In other words, gratuities are warranted in situations where I would physically be taking care of myself; carrying bags to my car or my room, shining my shoes, cleaning the room, bringing food to my table, etc. In all of these situations a person has demeaned themselves and acted in your service instead of you doing it yourself. However, I cannot check myself into a hotel or a flight – the hotel or airline has to check me in – therefore no tip is warranted.
Of course, like anything else, there are other motivations as well. Jerry Seinfeld once mentioned that he tips well in restaurants because as soon as someone hears that he came into a restaurant the first question they ask is, “What kind of tip did he leave?” There are also those who do it for recognition. I remember once walking into a restaurant with a wealthy fellow and everyone (from the maître d' on down) greeted him by name, and all I could think was, “This guy obviously tips very, very well.”
But I believe most people (at least Americans) tip for the right reason: A tip is given to restore a person’s dignity and self-esteem. In fact, the word esteem comes from the root word estimate. Meaning, self-esteem refers to a person’s estimate of their self-worth. Giving a tip is a mini gift and a statement that I appreciate that you are doing something that I would otherwise do for myself. The very giving of the gift means that they aren’t my servants, I have no right to expect it of them, and I appreciate what they are doing for me. This simple gesture gives them a measure of self-worth.
However, perhaps even more important is the lesson in what our attitude toward them should be: In general, common sense dictates that we be very solicitous with the esteem of people who handle our food. This concept probably doesn’t require much elaboration.
But on a deeper level we should understand that if we are obligated to restore someone’s dignity for their act of service, how much more so do we have to speak and relate to them in a kindly fashion during their act of service and ensure that we do not do anything to further diminish their dignity.
That is also why the Torah describes giving a gratuity as bejeweling a person even though no jewelry is involved. The Torah wants us to understand that our obligation is to make sure that the Jewish servant who is leaving our service has a measure of his dignity restored. Meaning, by recognizing him as an individual and restoring his self-worth he is now coming back into the community not as a servant, but as a respected member of society.
Re'eh, Deuteronomy 11:26 - 16:17
This week is a jam-packed portion. It begins with a choice: “I set before you a blessing and a curse. The blessing: if you obey the commandments of God […]; the curse if you do not […] and you follow other gods.”
The portion continues with rules and laws for the land of Israel, primarily oriented towards staying away from idol worship and the other religions in the land. In verses 13:1-12 you will find the section that caused a missionary’s face to blanch and silenced him from continuing to proselytize a renowned rabbi.
One of the indications of the existence and necessity of the Oral Torah – an explanation and clarification (later redacted as the Talmud) of the written Torah (The Five Books of Moses) – comes from verse 12:21, “You will slaughter animals […] according to the manner I (God) have prescribed.” Nowhere in the Torah are we instructed in the manner of shechita, ritual slaughter. One might conclude that there was a very sloppy editor. Or one might conclude that there are additional teachings (the Oral Law/Talmud) clarifying and amplifying the written Word.
The source of the Chosen People concept is brought this week: “You are a nation consecrated to God your Lord. God has chosen you from all nations on the face of the earth to be His own special nation” (Deuteronomy 14:1-2).We are chosen for responsibility, not privilege – to act morally and to be a “light unto the nations.”
The portion then gives instructions regarding: permitted and forbidden foods, the Second Tithe, remissions of loans every 7 years, treatment of those in need (to be warm-hearted and open-handed), a Jewish bondsman, and the three pilgrimage festivals (Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot).
Those who train wait staff claim that investing time and money in a Theater/Arts degree pays off very quickly for restaurants.