Rabbi Yishmael said, "Be yielding to a superior, gentle to the young, and receive every person with joy." Ethics of the Fathers, 3:16

In the classic film Casablanca, Peter Lorre invites himself to sit down at Humphrey Bogart's table and says, "You really despise me, don't you, Rick?"

Humphrey Bogart replies, "If I gave you any thought at all, I probably would."

The audience can't help enjoy Bogart's debonair Rick Blaine putting down Lorre's sniveling Ugarte. In his character as Rick, Bogart was the epitome of cool before the term was even invented.

Cool is not a concept that translates well into Jewish philosophy.

But cool is not a concept that translates well into Jewish philosophy. The attitude defined by aloof superiority, calculated indifference, and casual disdain is precisely the opposite of how we are meant to carry ourselves through life. The fleeting pleasure that comes from a sarcastic barb or a derisive smirk reveals the depth of our psychological and emotional insecurity. No spiritually healthy person could possibly consider disparaging another person to be a form of entertainment.

THREE TYPES OF PEOPLE

In this deceptively simple mishna, Rabbi Yishmael alludes to three categories of people with which we all interact in the course of our lives.

First are our superiors, those who are placed -- either through ability, seniority, or luck --in positions of power and authority above us. These are the rulers and the bosses, the parents and the teachers, the masters and the commanders who make the rules and give the orders.

The Talmud tells us that one who performs a good deed in response to a command has greater merit than one who acts of his own initiative. This seems at first counterintuitive. Is it not better to act rightly motivated by the desire to do good than only in response to orders from a higher authority?

We find here an insight into human psychology. All of us have the deep-seated desire to be rulers over ourselves, to be masters of our own destiny, to determine our own course and our fate. The moment we are given orders, something within us urges us to rebel, to reject those instructions for no other reason than as an expression of our own autonomy.

More often than not, the impulse to rebel leads us into folly and betrays our own best interests. Refusing the instructions of an employer, a commanding officer, a policeman, or the federal government will usually result in the loss of employment or personal freedom, with consequences that extend far into the future. As much as we might feel justified in asserting our independence, Rabbi Yishmael warns us against the consequences of denying the power of authority.

Even more significantly, by submitting to authority we gain mastery over our own egos. Both history and psychology testify that so much of human conflict stems from arrogance, pride, and the lust for power and honor. Every time we yield to those whose position gives them power over us, we take back a measure of control over the ego and break the hold that the ego has over us.

Consequently, every exchange with a flesh and blood superior provides us an opportunity to refine our relationship with the Almighty -- the ultimate authority.

NOBLESSE OBLIGE

The second category includes those people we consider to be our inferiors. Those who are "young" in our eyes may be truly young in years. In more general terms, however, this grouping refers to those whom we believe have little to offer us because they are lacking in resources, wisdom, or power.

Offering a kind word to the poor is equivalent to giving charity.

The trait of noblesse oblige, of respect and concern for those less fortunate than oneself, is among the most admirable human qualities. By conducting ourselves toward those who have nothing but their self-respect, we brighten their lives by showing them that they have our respect as well. The Talmud teaches that offering a kind word to the poor or the lowly is equivalent to giving charity, for it restores the spirit as surely as money provides food, clothing, or shelter.

The final category includes those people we consider our equals. After warning us against resentment toward those more empowered than ourselves and against disdain for those less privileged than ourselves, Rabbi Yishmael concludes by warning us against overlooking those who fall into neither category. Perhaps we will assume that those of comparable station are independent, and therefore have no need for us. Perhaps we will fear that we are in competition with them in attaining the next rung of the social ladder. Either way, we should recognize that every person is fashioned in the image of God, and we should celebrate our opportunity to come in contact with every one of the Almighty's most exalted creations.

But one final step remains to fully understanding the subtlety of Rabbi Yishmael's teaching. Once we acknowledge that every person has been created for a specific reason and placed where he can best fulfill his purpose, then we cannot help but acknowledge that those who hold positions of superiority over us were placed in their positions as agents of Divine. Be yielding to a superior, says Rabbi Yishmael, as if your superior were appointed to his position by God Himself -- for indeed he was.

By the same token, in every circumstance where we find ourselves in positions of superiority over others, be gentle to the young, and act toward them as if God Himself had placed you there for their benefit -- for indeed He has.

By adopting Rabbi Yishmael's attitude, we will naturally receive every person with joy, brightening our own lives and the lives of all those around us.