• Did you ever do something generous for someone selflessly, only to feel disappointed that your kindness or efforts were not acknowledged?
• Did you ever send an invitation that went unacknowledged?
• Did you ever contribute to a team effort only to find you’ve been suddenly displaced without conversation, explanation or warning?
• Have you ever been criticized in a way that seems like a personal attack, where the critic lacked the finesse to consider your feelings in the way the message was delivered?
• Have you every felt wrongly accused in a dispute, dismissed or mischaracterized by others?

Most of us could answer in the affirmative to at least one of these questions. Well-intentioned people sometimes forget their manners. We are human, after all, and we make mistakes. We may get sloppy in our interpersonal conduct when we are tired, distracted, hurting, or absorbed with our life issues. But we all share a hope, indeed an expectation, that these mistakes are aberrations, not ways of being in the world.

We all want to live in a world where people are considerate, grateful, communicative, kind and thoughtful. When we get up in the morning, that is the world that we hope to greet with each new day – where we feel connected, appreciated, and safe.

For ages we have been striving to learn how to become better people. This is where our patriarch Abraham steps onto the stage. Abraham and Sarah set off in search of a new covenant, in relationship with the Source of all Life. Yet, sprinkled into the opening narratives of our patriarchs/matriarchs are stories of painful interpersonal misdeeds. The Torah records our ancestors’ misguided actions so that we might learn from their mistakes. Ultimately, the Torah’s teaching, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) comes to direct our course.

We keep trying, and sometimes we get it right. In the sweep of history there have been good times and bad times. In good times, our accomplishments are awesome and holy. In other times, it seems as though humanity sometimes enters a warp of self-absorption or selfishness and even bad-temper. Then, people don’t always treat each other well. Some people act out from a place of hurt or fear. The challenges we face may cloud our view of the sacredness and awe that Abraham led us to seek.

It seems that we may be living through just such a challenging time.

Stephen Carter, in his 1998 book, “Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy” talks about “sacrifice and neighbor-love”: He reminds us that the command to love your neighbor as yourself is “the simplest of commandments and maybe the hardest one to follow.” It requires us to act with love toward others, which is a hard discipline to cultivate. Carter suggests that we get there by seeing this as a moral obligation that is absolute. “Why?”, he asks, “Because that other human being, whatever his or her strengths, weaknesses, and simple complexities, is also a part of God’s creation.” In religious terms, this discipline is sustained by a powerful sense of awe in glory of life and this universe.
We must come into the presence of our fellow human beings with a sense of awe and gratitude.

Just this week I had several conversations with some folks in our community about their own private hurts because of actions of others. The questions listed above describe the shape and substance of these hurts. Yes, mistakes happen. But one person observed that this feels like a cultural issue – there is too much self-absorption going around, she observed. I thought of Stephen Carter’s book, which had already been reverberating in my mind to teach again. I thought of the “civility campaign” of the JCPA (Jewish Council for Public Affairs) http://engage.jewishpublicaffairs.org/content_item/Civility) and the public divisiveness in our culture right now. It does seem that we need to recover our center – as a people commanded to direct all of our actions mindfully, in regard for each other’s feelings and humanity.

We are approaching the festival of Pesach (Passover.) It is not only about liberation from Egyptian bondage. Pesach envisions a world in which all people are freed from the “narrow places” (from the Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim.) May this celebration renew our commitment to shaping a world where the expansiveness of God’s glorious world is ever-present, and we all act in accordance with the rule to “Love your neighbor as yourself.”