Off the Pulpit

Kindness and Closeness

Most people are courteous to those whom they barely know. We are gracious to the waiter, elevator operator, the bank teller. But character is judged on how we behave when it is difficult to be kind. In other words, how do we behave to those who are close?

When two mitzvot are before us, one rare and the other commonplace, which comes first? We might think the rare one. But there is a Jewish legal principle: tadir u’sheano tadir, tadir kodem: the frequently observed mitzvah takes precedence. It is not difficult to be enthused about the rare and special. The trick of life is to bring intensity to the commonplace.

The same principle is operative with people. Our first obligation to goodness is with our spouses, our children, our friends, our family. Taking them for granted violates the principle of tadir kodem — the frequent comes first. The stranger on text doesn’t matter more than your child across the table.

A good life is marked in part by the stability of its relationships. Do we give those close to us the attention we lavish on those who are passing and tangential in our lives? Everyone honors the special. Judaism teaches us to honor the everyday.