Derech eretz (the way of the land) means etiquette and good manners in its narrowest sense, and standards for honorable, dignified behavior in its broadest. The sages taught that if the Jewish people demonstrate the virtue of derech eretz yet don't fulfill any other Torah principle, they will still receive merit from God. Derech eretz teaches us to always be sensitive to the feelings of others. Opportunities to practice derech eretz include greeting people, inviting them into our homes, and speaking about other people in a respectful way whether or not they are within earshot.
Judaism is very big on social niceties because they are considered an essential element of a stable and wholesome community. We are taught to greet another person first even if it means crossing the street to catch him, so that he will not for a moment think we are trying to avoid him. We are even permitted to interrupt the recital of the Shema, a central prayer in the Jewish service, in order to return someone's greeting. Greetings can be seen as a polite gesture or as something larger, a symbol of our desire to honor each of God's human creations every chance we get. Teaching children how to give and receive greetings then becomes a lesson not just in manners but also in spiritual generosity.
Both adults and children often feel awkward when meeting new people, but adults have learned strategies for overcoming their awkwardness. Young children who bury their head in your leg and refuse to utter a word are not insulting anyone, but children six and up need to learn strategies for handling the natural bashfulness they feel. Otherwise, their downcast eyes and silence will be read as rudeness. With some children these social skills come easily, especially if they see you practicing them regularly. For other boys and girls, overcoming shyness can be quite difficult. You can teach your child how to greet others by using a few tips from the etiquette books. There are just four basic rules. Tell your child to:
• Make eye contact. A trick is to look to see the color of the other person's eyes.
• Begin a greeting with the person's name: "Hi, Sara," "Hello, Rabbi Nachman."
• Tolerate small talk with grace. People often ask children they've just met rather impertinent or personal questions. "What's your favorite TV show? Do you like your little sister? Your teacher? Do you have a boyfriend?" Tell your child that she can answer these questions very briefly or change the subject if she doesn't want to answer, but that she has to say something.
Teaching children about the proper way to greet others begins at home, like everything else. If Benjamin blows in the front door, nearly knocking you over with his backpack as he heads for his room, he has much to learn. Stop him and smile, greet him by name, and hold on to him for a moment. He is likely to remember what to do.
Excerpted with permission from The Blessing of a Skinned Knee (Scribner).