Matot-Masei: How it looks matters, too.

Before the Israelites crossed the Jordan River to conquer Canaan, they encamped on the fertile land to the East.  Two of their tribes told Moses that they preferred to inherit that land rather than the Promised Land.  To “clear their obligation to the Lord and to Israel,” they offered to lead the Israelites into battle and then return to their new homes, their flocks, and their families. Moses agreed.  

Our sages were not satisfied to read this narrative only as an event in Jewish history.  They asked, more generally, what it means to be “clear of obligation to the Lord and to Israel?”  And they derived a principle that a Jew’s behavior should not only be correct, it should avoid even the appearance of impropriety.     

In his book The Jewish Encyclopedia of Moral and Ethical Issues, Nachum Amsel explains why.  “Like an advertiser of any product who is worried that his or her product be perceived properly and not seen in a bad light, Judaism is careful that its product, that is, Judaism itself, is understood properly and not seen in a bad light.  Therefore, when a Jewish action is correct but the perception is negative, Judaism says the action should not be done, even though it is not wrong.”   

We Jews were saved by this principle!  When G-d became angry at us and twice told Moses that G-d would destroy us (starting over with Moses and a few other righteous Jews), Moses argued that if G-d did so, non-Jews would think that G-d lacked the power to deliver the Jewish people into Canaan, as promised.”  This would not have been correct; G-d certainly did have the power.  But each time, G-d agreed with Moses that appearances were important, and the Jewish people were saved as a result.   

Whether or not we wish it were so, our daily behavior reflects upon the Jewish people and Judaism.  If we conduct our business only according to the standard “I am doing nothing illegal,” or if we treat people only according to the standard “I am doing nothing wrong,” then we fail to represent Judaism – and G-d -- in a favorable light.  To be “clear of obligation before the Lord and Israel” is to be able to say “I try my best to bring credit to Judaism and to G-d in everything I do.”  Of course, as humans, we often fall short of this level of behavior, but it should be our goal nevertheless. 

I divide my time between a suburb in Southern California and Jerusalem.  In the former, there are relatively few Jews.  Hardly any of us there wears a Kippah everyday, but I choose to do so.  I don’t do so in obedience to a command by G-d or our sages, nor because wearing a Kippah or other head-covering in public is a very old Jewish tradition.  I do it because I know that it makes me a very conspicuous representative of Judaism and of the Jewish people.  I am constantly reminded that I have an obligation to G-d and to Israel to avoid even things that appear improper, even if they are actually permissible.  

Of course, to publicly identify oneself as Jewish can be problematic and even dangerous in many parts of the world.  Judaism also requires that we not needlessly endanger our or others’ lives.  In such circumstances, one might choose to carry a prayer, phrase, Torah verse, or an item of personal reminder in one’s pocket or purse.  Or – much more importantly --  one might simply begin reviewing one’s behavior each night before going to bed, noting failings in behavior and resolving to correct them.  (Brief daily dairy entries are excellent for this purpose).       

This Shabbat, may each of us rededicate ourself to acting and speaking in ways that bring credit to our people, our tradition, and our G-d.  

Shabbat shalom.   

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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb