A promise for Rosh Hashanah: Remembering the value of dignity

After all the political speechmaking of the past few weeks, in the wake of all the claims  and fact-checking, name-calling and back-slapping, one simple word has stuck in my mind and my heart. It was spoken at the beginning of Barack Obama’s short tribute film that was shown just before the president made his speech to accept the nomination for re-election.

“We all understand work as something more than just a paycheck,” the president said as images of autoworkers building parts on a factory line flashed across the screen. Recognizing the economic hardship many have suffered over his term of office, Obama spoke of how work is “what gives you dignity. What gives you a sense of purpose.”

Dignity. More essential than a paycheck.  More vital than money. 

The value of dignity reverberates as we approach this High Holy Days season, perhaps because its importance so often gets lost in our love for consumerism, our culture of us-against-them and winner-takes-all. I have spent the last year listening to men — priests, politicians and talk-show hosts — disparage a woman’s right to have governance over her own birth control. I have heard both men and women talk about rape and violence against women and use the term “legitimate.” And I’ve encountered the fear of the redefinition of marriage — other people’s marriages — as if we should have the right to choose whom someone should love, or want to spend their life with, to share their finances and every dream and hope. Where, I have wondered, is the dignity of others in such discussions?

In Judaism, we are taught not to put stumbling blocks in front of the blind, to never withhold wages from workers and to see all men — and women — as created in God’s divine image. We are told to do unto others as we would have them do to us, which is to say, to offer dignity to everyone, as we would wish it be offered to us.

Perhaps, following those fundamental Jewish guidelines, we could do better in respect to judging how others should live and love.

In 2005, Hershey H. Friedman wrote an extensive academic treatise that explores “Human Dignity and Jewish Law.” In it, this professor of business and marketing at Brooklyn College whose recent writings include “The Talmud as a Business Guide,” describes the various ways that kavod habriot — Hebrew for dignity for all living beings — is fundamental to Judaism, Jewish law and Jewish life. So significant, he argues, that the rules surrounding it should be applied to the dead as well as to the living. Friedman’s detailed and footnoted essay explores how respect for our own dignity and our regard for others ought to govern our lives, not only in our day-to-day interactions, but also in some very contemporary issues: from allowing abortion under certain circumstances, to how to protect the dignity of a marriage. 

He also writes about business transactions, and, among his many modern and biblical citations, he tells of how one Israeli business has come up with a way to dignify the needy:

“A wonderful example of kavod habriot is the Carmei Ha’Ir soup kitchen in Jerusalem, where the people who enter receive honor as well as food. It was designed to look like any other restaurant, only with no bill to pay at the end of the meal. The restaurant serves 500 portions a day, and there is a large wooden box near the exit so patrons can leave anything they wish. Many leave a napkin with a scribbled thank you.”

In the United States, a similar effort has been launched by the Panera Bread restaurants, which, in an attempt to serve the hungry, has launched a 501(c)(3) organization, Panera Cares, to operate community cafes — each one transformed from one of their ubiquitous Panera salad, sandwich and bread shops. At the Panera Cares cafes, however, all menu items are sold on a “pay what you want” system, with a suggested list price. Recently, a National Public Radio reporter visited the newest of these community cafes, in the mixed-income Lake-
view neighborhood of Chicago. The restaurant looked almost like any other Panera, but in place of a cash register, there was a donation box.

“Panera does not track the numbers exactly,” the NPR reporter, Niala Boodhoo, told her “Morning Edition” audience, “but it says roughly 20 percent of Panera Cares customers give more than they’re asked. An additional 60 percent donate the suggested amount. The rest pay less or nothing.” 

Affording dignity should, of course, be a matter of every aspect of our lives, no less in our workplaces than in our synagogues and homes. In our working world, where jobs are often scarce and salaries aren’t rising as quickly as people might hope, we can always afford to give our colleagues dignity. My research on this began long before I listened to the president’s words, but I’ve found, searching through one management-advice Web site after another, that the message is very like his: “We all understand work as something more than a paycheck.” Treating employees with dignity, openness and caring is as vital to a worker’s success as any financial incentive, because, at the end of the day, dignity can remain within us even when the money is gone.

So, here’s my resolution for the new year: to keep my office door open, to listen well, to communicate with others, to show caring and to always offer appreciation. To avoid conflict, gossip and to live by the example I would like others to set for me.

A smile in a hallway can improve a day, even a dark one. The gift of dignity is priceless.

May the year ahead be a sweet, good year for all. 

Susan Freudenheim is executive editor of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. She can be reached at editor@jewishjournal.com. You can follow her on Twitter at

Even the subtlest slight deserves a challenge

It happens to all of us. You are with friends, engaged in small talk, and then someone makes a disparaging comment about a common acquaintance. You didn’t
see the insult coming, but there it is. It’s entered the conversation.

What should you do? Should you challenge the slight or let it go by unaddressed?

Before you can process your thoughts, the small talk has moved on to another subject — the sub-prime mortgage crisis, the latest presidential debate, the writers’ strike. The insult remains unchallenged.

In parshat Miketz, Joseph faces the same dilemma — and he essentially freezes.

In a whirlwind turn of events, he is taken from his prison cell to interpret the Pharaoh’s dreams about fat and emaciated cows, fat and emaciated ears of grain, and soon he is viceroy of Egypt. As Rav Avigdor Miller teaches, the entire dream sequence was a Divine gift to open the door for a series of events to unfold that would result in the unfathomable: a decision by the grand Pharaoh to allow an extended family of approximately 70 immigrants to be given their own canton in Egypt, where they could grow and evolve as a people, safely enough isolated from the rest of society to retain their language, their manners of dress, their names as well as their values and traditions.

Soon, Joseph becomes supplier of food to all of Egypt, and his influence progressively extends throughout the region. Our rabbis tell us in Tractate Pesachim 119a, for example, that he ultimately ingathered into Egypt all the gold and silver in the known world as he doled out food — first for money, later for land and indenture.

In time, his brothers arrive, sent by patriarch Jacob to seek food. When they arrive, they don’t recognize Joseph, although Joseph recognizes them.

Some say that when Joseph was sold into slavery at 17 he had not yet grown significant facial hair, so his new full beard effectively masked his appearance. Presumably it was easier for Joseph to spot Issachar and Zevulun, who were proximate to Joseph’s age when he was sold into slavery, because they were among the other brothers he knew and recognized. The Chasam Sofer adds that Hashem aided Joseph’s effort to disguise himself, placing in Pharaoh’s head the idea of changing Joseph’s name to Tzafnat Panayach (Genesis 41:45). Had the brothers been introduced to an Egyptian Viceroy named Joseph, well….

Joseph chose to play hardball rather than disclose his identity. In part, he knew that his brothers’ “first impression” of him — dating to boyhood — was that of “little Joey,” and he needed to redefine that first impression by getting them accustomed to fearing him, even prostrating, so that they ultimately would follow his plan to relocate them in Goshen.

Further, to protect his plan of disguise, he accused the brothers of being spies. Our rabbis tell us that Joseph harbored concerns that the brothers would snoop around Egypt, looking for their long-lost sibling. Therefore, to protect his secret, he acted to stop them in their tracks, accusing them of espionage. That very accusation compelled them to stop asking questions around town.

Joseph and the brothers converse briefly during each of their two visits for food. In the first round, he levels his accusations and eventually sends them on their way with instructions to bring back Benjamin. The second time, they are back — this time with Benjamin — and again they banter. And then come words that Joseph did not anticipate; they are simple words but with a terrible sting. He asks the brothers “Is your elderly father, about whom you told me, at peace?” And they respond: “Your servant — our father — is at peace. He still lives” (Genesis 43:27-28).

Joseph did not see that response coming. He may even have missed its import. But our rabbis in Sotah 13b point a laser at it: Joseph heard his father being ever slightly denigrated, described as his “servant,” and he did not say anything to elevate his father Jacob’s honor. He let the term pass. “Your servant — our father.”

It certainly would have been quirky for the viceroy of Egypt to have demonstrated humility. But that was the call of the hour.

Joseph allowed his father’s honor to pass undefended at that moment. Our rabbis teach that, later in his life, Joseph’s own honor was downgraded. In contrast to Jacob, who instructed his sons to “carry me” after death from Egypt back to the Holy Land for burial (Genesis 47:30), Joseph instructed his brothers to “carry my bones” from this place after his death for burial (Genesis 50:25). In the end, Jacob would end his days with the dignity of his personage intact. And Joseph would die, speaking only of the bones he would be leaving behind.

Clearly, Joseph lived and died a great man — Joseph the Tzadik, we have called him throughout history — but the lesson is instructive.

A person’s name is his or her greatest asset. His honor and dignity are his greatest resources and treasures. Any slight to that name carries a steep price. And anyone who hears an unjustified disparagement and lets it pass by unanswered is an accessory.

Rabbi Dov Fischer, a member of the Rabbinical Council of California and Rabbinical Council of America, is adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School and rabbi of an Orthodox Union congregation in Orange County.