Sermon – On Driving as a Jew

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 27 April 2012

Last week I was involved in one of those ‘on the road’ encounters where two drivers share a frank exchange of views about the driving ability of the other.  Nothing so unusual there, certainly for North West London. He hooted me, and rolled down his window And so, in response, did I.  And then things took an unusual turn. I, noticing his Kippah – and his peyot – shouted something like – “how about a bit of derech eretz” – the Jewish value of good manners – though, ironically I was a little bit less polite than that.  And then we had a different sort of conversation. One not about indicating or lane changing, but about Judaism and Jewish values.

It was a brief encounter.  But it was also, for me at least, strangely refreshing – certainly more so than most such conversations on the road.  Given his form of dress and mine, he and I are unlikely to agree about much to do with Jewish life.  But we would agree that Judaism should infuse our every activity – and for a brief moment on that morning, we put it into action. This is a core ideal found in parashat Kedoshim, from which Tom read for us this morning.  It contains laws covering every aspect of daily life – business, agriculture, speech, family, as well as ritual.  As such, it reminds us that holiness is a concept that applies to everything that we do. Including driving.

So, here in no particular order are half a dozen injunctions, virtues and values from our tradition which I could have angrily shouted from my car window that day – but which, more importantly, could help to bring holiness into this most everyday of activities:

Number one, Derech Eretz We sometimes forget that basic good manners are an essential part of maintaining a healthy social order – and this applies on the road as much as anywhere else.  Manners might not be something that we stress too much these days, but the early rabbis knew just how important this aspect of human interaction can be.  In Pirkei Avot we are told – im ein derech eretz, ein torah – if there are no good manners, if there is no decency in our social interactions, there can be no Torah.  Good manners, as simple as remembering to say thank you when someone lets us in on the road, parking with consideration for others, these are Jewish acts, fundamental to our ability to live and drive together.

But what about when someone doesn’t behave like that?  What about when the bus driver doesn’t say thank you when you slow down to let him in, leaving you feeling wrathful at buses for the rest of the day?

In that case we might want to exercise the middah – the Jewish virtue – of Erech Apayim – of being slow to anger.  In Torah, this virtue is first mentioned as one of the attributes of God – the ability to show self restraint in the face of repeated Israelite provocation.  The Book of Proverbs repeatedly cautions against losing self-control.  It is better to be slow to anger, it suggests, than to be mighty, better to have self control than to conquer a city.  We see anger on our roads all the time – sometimes we even provoke it, and it is never productive.  In the world of Mussar– a movement which developed in 19th Century Lithuania concerned primarily with human ethical behaviour, this idea is called Savlanut – often translated as Patience, though it has a different flavour to how we normally think about patience.  What it really means is our ability to experience things which are deeply annoying without letting them frustrate or anger us.  To quote the 19th Century Mussar leader Rabbi Mendel of Satanov: When something bad happens to you and you did not have the power to avoid it, why aggravate the situation even more through wasted grief?

But how to exercise such self-restraint?  Dan L’Chaf Zechut – another ideal found in Pirkei Avot might help.  Literally it means to judge on the scale of merit – more idiomatically, to give people the benefit of the doubt, or to not automatically assume the worst.  To quote the Baal Shem Tov commenting on a commandment found in Kedoshim to love your neighbour – “From the Mitzvah to love your fellow as yourself we learn the virtue to judge on the scale of merit – Since you always find excuses for your own misdeeds, make excuses also for your fellow”.  If he had lived in a different age he might have added – even for their poor driving.

Of course, driving is not only a mundane activity, but also an incredibly dangerous one, and two other Jewish ideals that we might bear in mind whenever we go on the road are Shmirat HaGuf – our responsibility to take care of our own bodies and the commandment of Maakeh – the responsibility to do all we can to prevent accidents.  Shmirat HaGuf reflects a core idea in Judaism that our bodies are not ours alone but belong to God, in whose image we are created.  Smoking, alcohol and drug abuse, allowing oneself to get horribly out of shape – all contravene this ideal – and so, too do things like extreme sports.  Judaism as a rule is relatively risk averse – and this applies also to how we drive. And this does not just apply to our own health and safety.  In Deuteronomy we are instructed to build a guardrail – a ma’akeh – around our rooftops in case someone falls off.  Within Halachah, Jewish Law, this instruction is extended to a more general instruction to prevent accidents – this includes a responsibility to build a fence around a swimming pool, a prohibition on owning dangerous dogs, and in at least one 20th Century Responsum, a prohibition on dangerous driving.

I don’t want to over-labour the point, but one final concept that we might apply to our driving.  The speed limit may not always make sense to us, we may know that we can drive safely at a faster speed.  But our texts teach us Dina d’Malchuta Dina – the Law of the Land is the law.  We are fully entitled to try to change the law, but it is a Jewish ideal to respect it.

So: Derech Eretz; Erech Apayim/Savlanut; Dan L’Chaf Zechut; Shmirat HaGuf and Ma’akeh; and Dina d’Malchuta Dina. All of which is easier said than done!  No saint in the car am I… for sure.  But as an aspiration – to drive as a Jew feels like quite a good one.

It is a fundamental idea expressed in our Torah portion this week that religion is not something that happens only when we step over the threshold of a synagogue.  Holiness is not only about the sacred spaces we create – about prayer and ritual – but about bringing Judaism into the mundane, into the everyday, into the things that we do as part of our ordinary lives, often without thought or reflection. So these are the times when we really reveal our Jewish selves: When we shop; when we do business; when we speak to one another; when we walk in the street – even, hard though it certainly is, when we get behind the wheel.  Shabbat shalom, and drive carefully.