In Eugene Ionesco’s play "Rhinoceros," a human being turns into a rhinoceros. Before the play ends, all but one of the characters has undergone the same transformation.
The key sentence in the play is spoken by the heroine, who witnessed a man turned into an animal. “Just before he became a beast,” she reports, “his last words as a human being were ‘we must move with the times.’”
The playwright has sounded a warning our generation needs very much to hear. One of the most serious threats to our humanity stems from our misguided desire to “move with the times,” to be what everybody else is, to do what everyone else is doing.
To permit what everybody else is doing to determine what we should be doing may find us doing what nobody should be doing. That is a sure way to become one of the herd, to surrender our human uniqueness and to risk becoming a rhinoceros.
The Bible raises the same warning flag where it tells us: “You shall not follow a multitude to do evil” (Exodus 23:2). No matter how many people steal, stealing remains wrong. No matter how many people are corrupt, corruption remains wrong. No matter how many people betray public trust, that action remains wrong.
The fact that any misdeed becomes popular does not make it permissible. The problem of evil is not solved by multiplication.
Moving with the times does not mean surrendering timeless truths or abandoning the accumulated decencies of the centuries. Moreover, whenever any unworthy action is justified on the ground that “everybody is doing it,” we ought to pause and reflect that, as a matter of fact, not everybody is doing it.
There are a host of people day in and day out living by the enduring values, abiding by the time-honored traditions, and measuring up to the cherished standards of truth and integrity. They are the solid little pegs that keep our world together.
They are more numerous than the newspaper headlines would lead us to believe. Crime gets much more attention - goodness so often goes unreported.
There is nothing sensational about honesty, loyalty, or fidelity because, if the truth is told, they are really what most people believe in and practice. The old adage counsels us: “When in Rome do as the Romans do.”
The Bible would add - provided that what the Romans are doing ought to be done. Otherwise, “You shall not follow a multitude to do evil.”
ED. NOTE: Rabbi Isaacs is rabbi at Beth Judah Temple, Wildwood. He invites questions emailed to his website, www.rabbiron.com