“Can I have a spoon for my rice?”
“I need a napkin.”
“More spaghetti please.”
When my children were little, I was firm about how they should sit at the table during meals. I kept them in booster seats longer than most because I wanted them comfortable and at the right height. I didn’t want them to squirm or sit on their knees or get up during meals before they were excused. Their sole focus was to be the food before them and their family around them.
My eldest daughter did not eat solid food for the first three and a half years of her life, and the Feeding Clinic we took her to regularly suggested different tips and tactics to encourage her to eat. As I counted the number of individual rice krispies she ingested, I insisted that proper demeanor at the table was essential to maximize food intake. No toys, no books and no getting up until the meal was over.
So, my girls all sit very nicely at the table.
They don’t seem to realize that now that they are no longer toddlers, if they are missing a spoon, a napkin or a glass, they can get one for themselves (and even one for everyone else) and then return to the table.
Instead, they seem to think they need to be waited on. And our housekeeper obliges them, despite my frequent reminders to my children (and to my housekeeper) that they are perfectly capable of getting what they need on their own.
The struggle to retrain this ingrained behavior begins with helping them to acknowledge both their own capabilities and the effects of their actions on another person. How would they like to be perceived by others? What do their requests reflect on their own character?
In this week’s parashah, we are commanded regarding our Israelite slaves:
Do not subjugate him through hard labour – you shall have fear of your God.
One could reasonably ask if the individual is your slave, is not his obligation hard work?
Rashi explains that, in this verse, hard labour refers to work that is not really necessary, but assigned to the servant only to torment him. He provides two examples: Don’t ask the servant to warm up a cup when you don’t really need one and don’t ask him to “Hoe under a vine until I come,” because the indeterminate nature of the task – since neither the master nor the servant knows when the master will arrive – renders the work unlimited and thus, without need.
Rashi further expounds:
Perhaps you will say [to yourself], “No one will know whether or not the task I assign is for a need or not, and I will tell the slave it is necessary. This is a matter of one’s conscience and thus, the verse says, “and you shall have fear of your God.”
We learn, according to Rashi, that we are responsible for protecting another person’s dignity, that even if no one gets hurt physically by our actions, we do not have a license to behave inconsiderately towards another human being. Moreover, imposing on a worker a senseless task damages our own character and fosters a proclivity towards insensitivity and even cruelty.
The parashah begins with God speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai. A rabbinic midrash tells that all the other mountains asked God to choose them as the location for the giving of the Torah, but God chose Mount Sinai because it was the most humble – it wasn’t the biggest or the grandest, it didn’t seek out fame or fortune. We must reflect this humility in our every interaction with another human being.
J.K. Rowling said: If you want to see the true measure of a man, watch how he treats his inferiors not his equals.
By teaching our children humility and self-awareness, we show them that by treating others with compassion and respect, we strengthen our own character and reflect a pride in how we behave and interact with the world.
God may have given the Torah on a humble mountain, but on a mountain nonetheless – not in a valley. To be “humbly proud” may seem like an oxymoron – but it edifies the exact balance in the metaphor of Mount Sinai. Our character and personality are most worthy of pride when we are humble and treat every other individual with the kindness and respect we wish for ourselves.