Love Thy Neighbor. (Except On Email?)

One of my hobbies is chicken keeping. My municipality allows small flocks of hens (no roosters — too loud) within city limits, so I have a coop, a fenced run and five birds in my yard. It is a good relationship: I feed them and care for them, and they give me eggs.

As they are animals, they are wont to roam. A few weeks ago my chickens were exploiting gaps in the wire fence to break out and explore. At first they stayed in our yard, and so we were a bit lax about corralling them as they always came back to their coop at night. They then got a bit more bold, and started wandering into the neighbor’s yard. We brought them back, and they wandered back out again.

Then I got an email sent to my work address. The sender was someone I didn’t know. The subject was “Chickens in Neighbors Yards.” And the content of the message was: “Are these your animals? Put them in a coop!” That’s all it said.

I will admit that I could have been more neighborly in being more vigilant and diligent with keeping my birds at home. I have subsequently shored up my fence, blocked up the gaps (while chickens look big, much of them is feathers, and they can manage to squeeze through small holes) and they haven’t gotten out. But the note touched a nerve in its directness and lack of civility.

Recently the New York Times ran an article called “A Eulogy for the Long, Intimate Email.” There was a time when, even as electronic communication began to take over for written missives, that emails were still composed, thoughtful and long. Now, however, with the proliferation of different types of communication — instant messaging, texting — messages become shorter and more curt. And the number of messages received each day forces communication to become more clipped and direct.

But while we may not be writing longer emails, have we lost even more? Yes, we do receive a lot of messages and don’t have a lot of time to write long engaged emails all the time. But does that mean we need to drop the conventions of communication? Do we not try to capture the right tone for the right situation? Are we not mindful of the relationship between the sender and receiver, and thus modify the tone and content as appropriate? Are we so focused on the “what” we are trying to communicate that we forget about the “how”?

The chicken email rubbed me the wrong way because in the message there was no salutation and no signature. I did not know the sender, and there was no introduction. There were no pleasantries to establish a relationship, and the request was direct and pointed. I accepted the tokhehah (rebuke), and wrote back an apology (with an offer of eggs.) But the note made me think about how we communicate with one another.

In this week’s Torah portion, we are told to “do what is right and good in the eyes of God.” (Deuteronomy 6:18) It is a broad commandment which has been interpreted to mean that we should do what is ethical, and not just what is legal. That we should act “beyond the letter of the law.”

And there is an additional nuance here: the word that is commonly translated as “right” is yashar, which also has the meaning of “straight” or “direct.” So in the verse, “direct” and “good” are paired. In other words, they are not mutually exclusive — in our direct dealings with people, even down to our shortest communications, we need to be sure we are acting for the good.

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