The Observant Jew
By Rabbi Jonathan Gewirtz
One day, I stopped at a local shopping strip and began walking to the store I needed. Suddenly I spotted a local politician pulling up in his official car. I wondered what he was doing there. I knew that a new store had opened and I imagined that he was going to make an appearance to wish them well, perhaps to make a photo opportunity out of a new local business, and I glanced around for the news reporters.
Not seeing any, I stealthily made my way towards where I’d seen him walk and nonchalantly pretended that I had business there as well. I walked to the window of the new store and peeked inside. He wasn’t there. I was confused. I had been sure that he was going to that store.
I kept walking and then I saw him walk out of a Chinese take-out shop with a bag in his hand. Oh.
He wasn’t making any official visits, and he wasn’t there in his professional capacity or his role as a community leader. He was just a regular guy buying lunch. No fanfare, no glitz, no glamour.
I shouldn’t have been surprised because deep down I know that he’s just a person. In fact, having met him before, even with his position, I know him not to be the nicest of people. But the expectation that he would be acting in his official capacity made me feel like I was about to be part of something bigger so when it turned out not to be that, I was disappointed.
I’ve often related the story of the time I was on a plane and across the aisle from me was a famous television actor. As a young man, I was awed when I saw him at the airport, thrilled when I found out he was on my flight, and stunned when he sat down near me. Then they served the meal. (For my younger readers: back in the day, airlines actually served meals on their flights. They were usually small and not very tasty, but hey, you’re on a plane and it’s food.)
As if it was yesterday, though it was decades ago, I recall what I saw and how I felt. He ate his clam chowder with gusto and a few minutes later was fast asleep in his seat with his head tilted back and snoring softly with his mouth open. “Eww,” I thought. “He’s just a guy.” In an instant, all the reverence I’d felt for him before melted away.
Why should that be? He’s a human being like everyone else. Why should I expect him to be different?
The answer to that is that when someone is given a lofty position, deference, and honor, it is assumed that they are a higher caliber of individual. Members of Congress refer to each other as, “The distinguished gentleman from Montana,” or “the distinguished gentleman from South Carolina,” and if one didn’t know politicians better he might believe the moniker to be accurate. Of course, by using those terms to reference their fellow congressmen they are attempting to take the high road when they’d likely rather be saying “that loud-mouth blowhard from a state whose cumulative IQ is less than my golf score.”
By now, you’re likely wondering where I’m going with this. Well, when I saw that man with his paper bag of shrimp lo mein or whatever it was, it was a letdown because I expected so much more. It made me think about how people react when they see a Jew.
You see, we, too, are celebrities on the world stage. Not just the ones who are wealthy or influential, but simply by being a Jew, people expect us to live to a higher standard, and we should. We are not just regular “guys.” We are representatives of HaShem, and should act in a way that conveys it.
Just as you wouldn’t find the Queen of England in a burger joint even if she liked hamburgers, and you wouldn’t find the President of France licking his fingers at a State Dinner, we are not supposed to act like your average Joe.
When we go somewhere, it is in our official capacity. It’s a photo op for people to see how HaShem’s people act. We bring a level of majesty to our surroundings and to act in a way that is beneath us would be to undermine the role we are to play in the world. It would be a disgrace.
When people see a member of the Royal Family acting properly, they are impressed and seek to emulate it. When they see them misbehaving, it’s worse than if a commoner did it. People are supposed to see us and be impressed. They are supposed to love HaShem because of the way we act.
It goes without saying, therefore, that we should remember who we are and wherever we go, we should strive to behave as honorable mentschen.
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