Setting the Tone

Setting the Tone 

by Rabbi David Weizman


On the way back from drop off in the morning, a black SUV was being chased by a pickup truck. They cut through the lanes closely in front of cars like mine, but came to a halt at a stop light. As I approached the line, I could see the pickup driver speaking to the other driver in an animated way, and as he was turning left, saluting with the middle finger of his right hand. I felt fortunate that no crash occurred and that he only pulled out his finger and not a weapon. But it was a disquieting episode which interrupted an otherwise peaceful drive, listening to the BBC World News Happy Hour.  Fast forward to the end of the day, another auto moment, turning left out of the subdivision towards Hebrew School. A motorcycle approached from the East. Coming into view was a man in a black leather suit, no helmet, and he too was saluting me with that single finger I had seen in the morning. I am not sure how I merited that great honor, but glad I was that our six year old was looking the other way. Road rage is nothing new. The fact that any size human sits on the power of two hundred horses and is enclosed in steel armor could give anyone a sense of confidence. But what occurred to me that day, was how easy it is to become angry, and also, how easy it is to be swept up in the feeling.

Unfortunately, we live in a world of real violence, and if you follow the news, you might think that’s all that goes on in the world. That exposure could contribute to atmosphere of aggression, impatience, and intolerance. Now, more than ever, we need positive role models who speak in the language of mutual respect and cooperation, voices that will encourage us to be generous of heart, understanding of the other, and communal in our world view of humanity and the ecology we belong to. These attributes are the ones that the Torah speaks, and that is why our sages directed us to recite passages that remind us of these values every morning as we begin our day.

After the recitation of the blessing for Torah study, the siddur includes three passages to fulfill the commandment. The first one is from the Torah, Birkat Kohanim; the threefold Priestly Blessing. Just as we desire God’s grace and light to shine upon us, showing us the path of peace, we are reminded to be the agents of that grace.

The second passage is taken from the Mishna, teachings from the Oral Torah from the first two centuries of the Common Era, extrapolations on the laws from the Torah. We are instructed to make sure that those in need have food to eat, to support our religious institutions, in those days, the Temple, and to engage in acts of loving kindness, and to study Torah. For these things there is no prescribed measure, therefore we give according to our ability; giving graciously.

The third passage is taken from the Talmud which teaches us that each act of hessed is like making a payment to our investment fund. The interest from which we live on, but the principal is left for our ultimate retirement. Here is the short list: honoring your parents, acts of kindness, being punctual, providing hospitality, visiting the sick, helping the needy bride, attending to the dead, delving into prayer, and being a peace maker. This teaching ends with the statement that the study of Torah is equal to all of the others. Why? Because study brings these mitzvot into consciousness.

This morning, several cars around mine, in three lanes of solid traffic, maneuvered around to let someone turn left onto a side street. A good way to start the day.