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08/08/2023 06:53:42 PM


True civility is about recognizing the divinity within us all

The Man of La Mancha is the story of Don Quixote.  The play features a waitress and prostitute named Aldonza.  When Don Quixote sees her, he refuses to treat her as a prostitute.  Instead, he calls her "my Lady."  He actually gives her a new name, Dulcinea.  Even after she is raped, and Don Quixote finds her hysterical and disheveled, he says compassionately, "My Lady, Dulcinea, Oh, my Lady, my Lady."

"Don't call me a lady," she cries.  "O God, don't call me a lady.  Can't you see me for what I am?  I was born in a ditch by a mother who left me there naked and cold-- too hungry to cry…. Don’t call me a lady.  I'm only Aldonza.  I'm nothing at all."

As she runs into the night, Don Quixote calls out, "But you are my Lady."

At the end of the play, the Man of La Mancha is dying alone, despised and rejected.  To his deathbed comes a Spanish queen with a mantilla of lace.  Quietly she kneels beside him and prays.  He opens his weak eyes and says, "Who are you?"

"My Lord, don't you remember?  You gave me a new name; you called me Dulcinea.  I am your lady."

Don Quixote refused to treat Aldonza with anything less than royal respect.  And so this is what she became.  And herein lies a lesson. If we treat others as noble people, as people with souls, then we are being civil and courteous, and just maybe we are helping them to grow into civil and courteous people, and we'll be making a more humane society for us all.

This is not always easy, of course.  If someone cuts us off in traffic, I can think of a more gratifying response than pleasantly waving to them.  It's also more enjoyable to yell at an incompetent salesperson instead of patiently smiling at them.  But when we act with civility despite our more natural instincts, we are giving ourselves a gift.  For although in the short-term showing our anger may feel wonderful, down the road we will most likely feel bad for our behavior, and we will have contributed to the growing incivility around us. 

To help us be more civil, and therefore observe the mitzvah of civility, I recommend we keep in our minds the declaration of the great Rabbi Akiva.  "The most important teaching in the Torah," he observed, "is that God created us in the divine image."  Every act we commit and attitude we possess depends on whether or not we believe these crucial words.  They tell us that every human being deserves some basic dignity because of the divine spark inside of them.  These words tell us that to be cruel to them, even in some small way, is to be cruel to God.  These words remind us that true civility is about recognizing the divinity within us all.

Wed, February 21 2024 12 Adar I 5784