During high school I moved with my mother to Wiesbaden, Germany. She was working as a social worker in the hospital where American hostages were debriefed after captivity in Iran. Wiesbaden was a spa town captured by US troops during World War II. They used it as a base, bombing everything around it. Till today it stands pristine – the casinos, museums, lake, opera house and spa – all unscathed, a testament to Germany’s pre-war Hoch-Kultur (high culture).

We were extremely comfortable in our turn-of-the-century apartment with its giant windows, and plaster cherubs staring down out us from the high ceilings. I understood how a Jew could get stuck and not want to leave such a place. The civility and decorum fascinated us. Despite all my new German friends, I could not help but ask myself: How could such a polite and well-behaved society have committed such atrocities only a half-century before?

How could such a polite and well-behaved society have committed such atrocities only a half-century before?

Every time I walked down the tree-lined streets, I had a question turning in the back of my mind: “What is the difference between being polite and being good?”

Rabbi Yitzhak Hutner, late dean of Yeshiva Chaim Berlin in Brooklyn, would relate a chilling story* that illustrates this point: When Rabbi Hutner was a young rabbinic student in pre-war Europe, one of his fellow students spoke admiringly about the polite and refined manner with which the German people treated him during a recent visit there. The student recalled that whenever he asked for directions, the Germans would end their statements with a polite “Nisht vaar?” – “Is it not so?”

A disagreement ensued among the students about whether it was proper to learn etiquette from the Germans who had no connection to Divine Law, but merely his own sense of proper behavior.

Fifty years later in America, an elderly man once approached Rabbi Hutner, and reminded him that they had been students together back in Europe. Overjoyed to see an old acquaintance, Rabbi Hutner grabbed the man’s hand to embrace him. He was stunned to find a hook in place of the man’s hand. The man explained: “I was one of the boys in favor of learning etiquette from the Germans,” he said. “I realize now just how wrong I was. When I was in the concentration camp, a Nazi sawed off my hand. As he did so, he said, ever so politely, ‘It hurts, nisht vaar?’”

Until moving to Germany I’d always assumed that etiquette was an expression of being good. If I was “acting nice,” that meant I was nice. But now I saw that culture and civility were no proof of goodness. So what was the missing ingredient? How do you raise a person and teach him to be good?

Related Article: The Good Bed

Caught Red-handed

I discovered my answer as a father. One day, putting my year-old son on the slide, I saw he was frightened. I’ll just give him a little push, I thought to myself. He’ll like it.

So down the slide he went. In his panic, he bumped his head and was screaming. A month later he was still scared of the slide.

Hiding under my slick demeanor was a total lack of awareness of others.

As I held him crying in my arms, I felt like hell had just opened up before me. I wasn’t really trying to build up courage in my kid. I was bored. I caught myself red-handed using my baby to amuse myself as if he were a toy. I felt like a monster. I wouldn’t have behaved that way to someone who could answer back to me, but I was ready to amuse myself with a defenseless infant. Later I thought to myself: How would this horrible character trait have emerged if I was a Pole or German during Nazi Germany. I shuddered as I realized that hiding under my slick demeanor was a part of me that totally lacked awareness of the preciousness of every human being.

Once I became aware of this trait in myself, I was at once comforted and shocked to see that many other people shared it, too. A mother taking a picture of her daughter, ignoring the fact that her toddler son was wandering into the street; an uncle over-teasing his nephew and not noticing the child couldn’t handle it; a grandmother forcing an awkwardly shy daughter to participate in a beauty pageant.

These people are polite and nice, yet somehow unaware of the pain of others. And then I thought about my own mother. She would never have pushed me into anything I wasn’t ready for. Even as a toddler in Texas the only clothes she could get me into were jeans, boots and a cowboy hat. She never forced me to wear clothes I hated. She may have been embarrassed by my appearance, but she did not live by mere politeness alone. She had totally different criteria of how to treat people.

In Judaism we call it: derech eretz. This means is acting with deep respect toward others because they are “made in the image of God,” a source of infinite and innate value. As a 3-year-old I felt that respect from my mother. She never embarrassed me or violated my sense of space by forcing me to do anything that was not for my direct good. She always dealt with me as a full person.

The Golden Rule

The first step to being “truly good” is to treat others with derech eretz. The Talmud (Shabbat 31a) tells the story of a non-Jew who learned the Jewish secret of how to apply derech eretz, and ended up converting. He approached the great sage Hillel and said: “Convert me on condition that you can teach me the entire Torah while standing on one foot.” Hillel answered: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your friend. The rest [of the Torah] is commentary. Now go and learn it.”

The Torah recognizes that we are self-focused. It therefore instructs us to focus inward, on how we feel when we are violated or treated with lack of dignity. Using that natural self-focus, we can train ourselves to recognize how much pain others may feel when we “treat them in a way we would not want them to treat us.” By being sensitive to our own hurts, we can begin to recognize that others also share the human capacity to feel hurt.

This takes a lifetime of work. Till today I catch myself being not careful enough brushing my child’s hair, or not careful that the bathwater isn’t a bit too cold or too hot, or ignoring a request because I am too into whatever I am doing.

Often, the source of our pain is the recognition of how valuable we are. Deep down we all sense that we are created in the image of God. As we identify this in ourselves, we become careful to guard the dignity of others as well.

Here are three practical ways to begin practicing derech eretz:

1) Pick someone you love – a spouse, child or parent. Take a piece of paper. Write down five things that annoy them. For one week, try not to do any of these five things. Do it simply because you want “good” for the other person. You will see your relationship change.

2) Pick one person and before you speak, look at their facial expression. Before speaking, reflect on how they feel, and relate to them before expressing your own needs.

3) Smile at people for who they are (versus smiling out of politeness).

Surprisingly, the more we learn to see the value in others, the more we feel our own sense of value. May we all merit to discover how precious and invaluable we are!

(* story heard from Moshe Gewirtz, Partners in Torah)