Some people can’t be described in any way other than toxic. Unlike those who are merely unpleasant, unfriendly, or unrefined, toxic people exude an aura of such intolerability that they poison the atmosphere of any room they walk into, like chemical or biological waste.
It isn’t, necessarily, that these people are overtly offensive. Just as certain people have the quality we call chein – an unquantifiable grace or charm that makes their company always welcome and brightens even the most dreary surroundings – the toxic person fouls his environment even through seemingly benign comments or actions. A peculiar combination of self-absorption, tactlessness, insensitivity, and abrasiveness produces a personality type that would evoke pity if it weren’t so difficult to endure.
Yesterday, I had the misfortune to find myself next to a person who, with one thoughtless comment, nearly drove me from the room. Recognizing that his remark originated not from malice but from terminal cluelessness, I tried to reframe the exchange rather than let it ruin my afternoon. My mind was already on the week’s Torah portion, so I began to look there for perspective.
With one of the most dramatic openings of any parsha, Re’eh begins with the admonition of Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses) to recognize the blessing and the curse that the Almighty has placed before us and contemplate the consequences of the choices we will make. Choose life! declares Moshe, but not until he has outlined the specifics of what that choice will entail over the course of the next several parshios.
Moshe first outlines matters of intrinsic kedusha, including the sanctity of the land, details of the offerings upon the altar and of sacred tithes, and the preparation of kosher meat. Only then does he shift his emphasis to matters of Jewish society, adjuring the people to do “what is good and what is right in the eyes of HaShem, your G-d.”
Rashi explains: “What is good – in the eyes of heaven; what is right – in the eyes of men.” It is not enough to be sensitive to the Temple service, the laws of kashrus, and the requirements of a relationship with one’s Creator; the Jew must be equally concerned with how his conduct is perceived by his fellow men.
And so Moshe goes on to warn against imitating the rites and customs of the gentile nations who surround us, lest exposure to their moral value system comes to uproot our own. He warns against following a false prophet who, by misrepresenting the Torah, convinces us that the Word of G-d is subject to reinterpretation and revision. He warns us to be wary of both individuals and communities that seek to impose new values and laws, always in the name of truth or love or brotherhood or innovation.
Moshe reminds us that G-d has chosen us as a treasured people, who remain treasured by virtue of our virtuous conduct – through our self-restraint, through our faithfulness and commitment, through our mercy and generosity and genuine concern for our fellow Jews.
We are therefore obligated to contemplate not only how G-d sees us but how our fellows see us. We have to be willing to look carefully enough to recognize whether others perceive us as walking biohazards. We then have to be willing to do whatever is necessary to clean up our mess. This doesn’t mean that we flatter others or conform to popular opinion. It means that we strive to define our lives as examples of personal integrity and respect, to which others cannot help but respond with warmth and affection.
The one who finds Torah finds chein – charm and grace. If the rest of the world doesn’t see us the way we would like them to, we have a very potent formula available to change their perception. As we enter the month of Elul in preparation for Rosh HaShonah, it’s a message that deserves our attention.