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Sep 07 2015

How To Be Good

HOW TO BE GOOD

 

As we come together this evening to begin the High Holiday season in earnest, we all are, or should be, obsessed with one question- “How to Be Good”, which is coincidentally, the name of a novel by Nick Hornby which I read this past year. The title was guaranteed to get my attention at an airport bookstore.   I found it an intriguing study of a young family man who becomes dissatisfied with what might be described as an “ordinary” level of goodness in his life, and his struggle to come to terms with what is an appropriate level of materialism and is there such a thing as “enough” when it comes to caring for the needs of others?

In the book, David and Katie live a comfortable, middle class existence. David earns his living writing a column for the local newspaper based on his anger with all the trivial annoyances of life. Even though he earns his livelihood through his anger, his anger is undermining their marriage. Then David meets DJ GoodNews, a full-time social activist. Overnight, the angry cynic acquires a deep sense of values. He begins to re-shape his household in accordance with his newly discovered quest for goodness. Among his first actions is donating one of the household computers to a domestic violence shelter. His son is, naturally shocked. When David challenges his son’s values, the child replies that, yes, he does want to help, “but not as much as a whole computer.”[1] It occurs to me that we all feel this way- we all want to help, but not as much as- fill in the blank with whatever is your personal limit on giving. Katie finds herself confused: “I’m a good person. I’m a doctor, and here I am championing greed over selflessness.”   How to be good and how good do we have to be turns out to be not such an easy question to answer, and one of the fundamental questions of the religious life.

“So what do I believe?,” Katie asks herself. “Nothing much, apparently. I believe that there shouldn’t be homelessness, and I’d definitely be prepared to argue with anyone who says otherwise. Ditto battered women. Ditto, I don’t know, racism, poverty and sexism”,[2] she answers her own question, rather glibly.   As we sit here this evening, we must ask ourselves the same questions in a much more serious way:   what do we believe in and how can we express these commitments in the way that we live? I’m sure we all agree with Katie’s sentiments, the question is, what are we doing about it and what should we be doing about it and can we ever be satisfied that we are doing enough?

GoodNews’ radical answer is that until the last peasant in the rain forest has a dishwasher and a cappuccino maker, then he’s not joining in. Where do the rest of us, who’d like to think of ourselves as good people, draw the line? As the story progresses, they organize a neighborhood meeting and ask each family to consider having a homeless person move in with them. “Do we have a moral right”, ask David and GoodNews, “to keep a spare bedroom as a junk room, or a music room, or for overnight guests who never come, when it is February and freezing and wet and there are people on the pavements?”[3] In the real world, in the United States today, home ownership is very much tied to success in life; it is the foundation of social, economic and educational advancement. How can we as a community advance the cause of fair housing for all? Ultimately Katie comes to the perspective I think we all share; as she puts it, “We know what’s right, but we don’t do it because it’s too hard, it asks too much.”[4]

“A recent New Yorker Magazine depicted a cartoon of a man kneeling in prayer at his bed before retiring for the night. Looking heavenward, this fellow complains, ‘I asked You, in the nicest possible way, to make me a better person, but apparently You couldn’t be bothered’.”[5] If only we could just turn the whole thing over to God and save ourselves the angst and hard work involved in being and becoming better people!

Okay, so we can’t save the world, but what can we do? What are we willing to do? Here’s another story with a less radical and therefore more inspiring and realistic approach. “A little boy about 10 years old was standing before a shoe store on a roadway, barefoot, peering through the window, and shivering with cold. A lady approached the boy and said, ‘My little fellow, why are you looking so earnestly in that window?’ ‘I was asking God to give me a pair of shoes,’ was the boy’s reply. The lady took him by the hand and went into the store and asked the clerk to get a half a dozen pairs of socks for the boy. She then asked if he could give her a basin of water and a towel. He quickly brought them to her. She took the little fellow to the back part of the store, and removing her gloves, knelt down, washed his little feet, and dried them with a towel. By this time the clerk had returned with the socks. Placing a pair on the boy’s feet, she purchased him a pair of shoes. She tied up the remaining pairs of socks and gave them to him. She patted him on the head and said, ‘No doubt, my little fellow, you feel more comfortable now?’ As she turned to go, the astonished lad caught her by the hand and looking up in her face, with tears in his eyes, answered the question with these words: ‘Are you God’s wife?’”[6] This story comforts us with the thought that, while we may not be able to save the whole world, we can touch the lives of those around us with care and compassion. We may not be God’s spouses, but we surely are God’s hands and heart in this world. Compassion is not just one attribute of God; it is the first one mentioned in the list of 13 attributes- “Adonai, Adonai, el rakhum v’khanun- God who is compassionate and gracious”.   “If you do not do good, too”, Ana Quindlen cautions us, “then doing well will never be enough”.[7]

Another example- “There’s a story of a woman sitting in the park of an affluent neighborhood, feeding the pigeons. One day she brings with her a whole bun of fresh bread just to feed her daily company. Little by little, pinch by pinch, she feeds each pigeon with joy. She sits there without being noticed by anyone in the neighborhood. Then suddenly a man comes by to confront this woman concerning her waste. He tells her that she should not throw away good food on a bunch of pigeons that can find food anywhere when there are so many starving people in Africa. To which the woman responds: ‘Well, I can’t throw that far!’”[8] Which is actually a very Jewish response, as Judaism teaches us that charity, does, indeed begin at home, with the needy in our own families and in our own community.

Part of the process the family in Hornby’s book undergoes is very much that of our High Holiday experience. They sort over the things they’ve done wrong in their lives and strive to reverse the effect. Confession is, of course, the first step in teshuva, and Maimonides encourages us to go to an opposite extreme as we strive to find the appropriate middle ground in our character development. If we are excessively greedy, for example, then we should focus on being generous; if we tend towards arrogance, we need to cultivate the quality of humility. The lesson we all need to take away from these High Holydays is that while it’s important to study and learn to distinguish right from wrong, it means nothing if we don’t translate our lofty ideals into action.

And in the end, the middle ground is where the story ends. And where our own lives begin. The High Holidays are the time when we look inward and ask ourselves- how can we do better? How can we become more menschikh? What will make us wake up to the reality that we are all ultimately connected? Rabbi Nakhman of Bratslav taught that it is not only at the High Holidays, but, rather, each day we should set aside time to consider everything we are doing in the world and whether or not it is worth spending our lives on it.[9]

Here’s a story about a person who was rewarded for doing the right thing, though our tradition urges us NOT to be among those who serve the Holy One ONLY on condition of receiving a reward: One stormy night, many years ago, an elderly man and his wife entered the lobby of a small hotel in Philadelphia. Trying to get out of the rain, the couple approached the front desk hoping to find some shelter for the night. ‘Could you possibly give us a room here?’ the husband asked. The clerk, a friendly man with a winning smile, looked at the couple and explained that there were three conventions in town. ‘All of our rooms are taken,’ the clerk said. ‘But I can’t send a nice couple like you out in the rain at one o’clock in the morning. Would you perhaps be willing to sleep in my room? It’s not exactly a suite, but it will be good enough to make you folks comfortable for the night.’ When the couple declined, the young man pressed on. ‘Don’t worry about me; I’ll make out just fine,’ the clerk told them.

So the couple agreed. As he paid his bill the next morning, the elderly man said to the clerk, ‘You are the kind of manager who should be the boss of the best hotel in the United States. Maybe someday I’ll build one for you.’ The clerk looked at the couple and smiled. The three of them had a good laugh. As they drove away, the elderly couple agreed that the clerk was indeed exceptional, as finding people who are both friendly and helpful isn’t easy. Two years passed. The clerk had almost forgotten the incident when he received a letter from the old man. The letter recalled that stormy night and enclosed with the letter was a round-trip ticket to New York, asking the young man to pay them a visit. The old man met him in New York, and led him to the corner of Park Avenue and 50th St. He then pointed to a great new building there, a palace of reddish stone, with turrets and watchtowers thrusting up to the sky. ‘That,’ said the older man, ‘is the hotel I have just built for you to manage.’ ‘You must be joking,’ the young man said. ‘I can assure you I am not,’ said the older man, a sly smile playing around his mouth. The old man’s name was William Waldorf Astor, and the magnificent structure was the original Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. The young clerk who became its first manager was George C. Boldt. The young clerk never foresaw the turn of events that would lead him to become the manager of one of the world’s most glamorous hotels. He elevated himself and rose to the occasion; he gave without question, just because it was the right thing to do.[10] Being a responsible person is part of what it means to be a good person. Think of Joseph who, when tempted to sin with Potiphar’s wife, replied with dismay, “How could I betray the trust of my employer who reposes so much confidence in me?” The notion of abdicating his responsibility was unimaginable, as it should be to us.

The point is not to beat ourselves up, to consider ourselves failures, but, rather, to acknowledge that whatever we’ve done, we CAN do better. God doesn’t stop loving us when we are less than perfect, and neither should we. At the Kol Nidre service next week, we begin by asking permission to pray with sinners, and every person present will know who we mean- each and every one of us. We will spend 26 hours begging God to forgive us for our failures.

When we come to the synagogue, we are reminded that Judaism is here to offer us guidance and wisdom on our journeys, that we may benefit from the experience of those who have gone before us. By renewing our commitment to ongoing learning, we reflect our commitment to the ongoing strengthening of our yetzer ha-tov, our inclination to do good. Part of the uniqueness of the human being is the consciousness of the distance between what we are and what we should be. This causes us tremendous embarrassment and induces tremendous humility. But it is simultaneously our greatest glory. It is a mistake to let ourselves be defined only by our moments of failure. The Hassidic sage Simkha Bunim taught that each of us should have two slips of paper in our pocket. On one should be written, “The world was created for my sake.” On the other, “I am but dust and ashes.” Wisdom, he concluded, consists of knowing when we need to read each message. The Rabbis taught that even the most righteous person cannot stand in the place of the repentant sinner. This offers each of us tremendous encouragement as we contemplate our own failings at this holy season. It is also a critical reminder that if we cannot forgive others for their imperfections we will wind up lonely and bitter individuals. “It is not up to us to complete the work”, taught Rabbi Tarfon. “But neither are we free to desist from it.”[11]

In the Army, before they give you the APFT, the Army Physical Fitness Test, you get a little briefing on each event. Before the sit-up, the person grading the test reminds you that as long as you are continuing to try to sit up, the event is not over. So it is with our moral development. As long as we are still making an attempt, we are still in the game! And, since we never outgrow the yetzer ha-ra, the evil inclination, it is a struggle that will be with us throughout our days.

When we leave this earth, the best we can hope for is to be remembered for our good name. Keter shem tov, the crown of our good name, we read in Pirke Avot, is the greatest glory.   We all hope to be remembered with the words- zekher tzaddik l’vrakha- may the memory of the righteous be for blessing.

No, we can’t cure all of society’s evils and yes, we could be doing more. It is healthy to feel guilty that we don’t invest more resources into tikkun olam, yet we can forgive ourselves, as we hope God forgives us, for our imperfections. This is the crazy, complex, paradoxical message of these Holy Days. The cure for our righteous sense of guilt is to do more in the coming year to be God’s hands and hearts in the world, knowing that none of us is perfect, that each of us struggles to be better, and that God is with us on our journey to be the best that we can be. The decision is in our hands. The tradition teaches that “There are six parts of the body that serve a person; three are under his control and three are not. The eyes, the ears and the nose are not under a person’s control; he sees what he doesn’t want to see, hears what he doesn’t want to hear, and smells what he doesn’t want to smell. The mouth, the hand, and the foot are under a person’s control. If he wants he can use his mouth to study Torah or to speak gossip and blasphemy. He can use his hand to give charity or to steal and kill. He can use his feet to walk to synagogues or houses of study, or to brothels.”[12] How will we choose to use our precious time and our limited resources in the year ahead?

I’ll conclude with a quote from Rabbi Harold Kushner, writing in his book How Good Do We Have to Be?”:   “If we are brave enough to love, if we are strong enough to forgive, if we are generous enough to rejoice in each other’s happiness, and if we are wise enough to know that there is enough love to go around for us all, then we can achieve a fulfillment that no other living creature will ever know. We can reenter Paradise.”[13] He leaves us with these words of encouragement, “How good can we expect a person to be? As good as he or she is capable of being, and much of the time that turns out to be very good indeed.”[14]

FOR THE MITZVA

(adapted from Rabbi Joseph Telushkin)

 

For the mitzva we performed by remembering the good someone had done for us even when we were upset with him or her;

 

For the mitzva we performed by stopping our child from teasing or calling another child by a hurtful nickname;

 

For the mitzva of refusing to buy products produced by child labor;

 

For the mitzva of remembering to thank people who have helped us;

 

For the mitzva of refraining from expressions of anger when we were driving our cars;

 

For the mitzva we performed when we were tempted to do something hurtful or dishonest and refrained from doing so.

 

For the mitzva we performed when we heard an ambulance siren and offered a prayer to God On behalf of the sick person inside;

 

For the mitzva of donating to tzedaka cheerfully;

 

For the mitzva we performed by apologizing to one of our children whose feelings we had unfairly hurt;

 

For the mitzva we performed by blessing our children on Shabbat and on the Jewish holidays;

 

 

For all these things, O God, Zokhrenu – please remember us, and inspire us to do more such acts this coming year.

 

 

For the mitzva we performed by helping someone find work;

 

For the mitzva we performed by refusing to buy products produced under inhuman conditions.

 

For the mitzva we performed by teaching our children Torah;

 

For the mitzva we performed by ourselves studying Torah;

 

For the mitzva we performed by involving ourselves in the life of the community.

 

For the mitzva we performed by keeping open the doors of communication among family and friends

 

For the mitzva of supporting our synagogue as honestly and fully as we could;

 

For the mitzva of staying in close communication with our elderly parents;

 

For the mitzva we performed by caring about Israel;

 

For the mitzva of having a Jewish home;

 

For all these things, O God, Zokhrenu – please remember us, and inspire us to do more such acts this coming year.

 

 

For the mitzva we performed by not snapping at the person who has chosen to share our life- For not snapping at our partner;

 

For the mitzva we performed by helping a developmentally disabled person;

 

For the mitzva we performed by not exaggerating the bad traits of people we do not like;

 

For the mitzva we performed by trying to arrive on time so as not to keep another person waiting;

 

For the mitzva we performed by hearing negative rumors about someone and not passing them on;

 

For the mitzva we performed by not using words such as “always” (e.g., “you’re always inconsiderate”) when we are angry with someone;

 

For the mitzva we performed by arranging to donate Our Organs;

 

For the mitzva we performed by treating Our children and spouse with the same courtesy and attitude Of Forgiveness we extend to guests who visit Our home;

 

For the mitzva of bringing food to the Yom Kippur food van.

 

For the mitzva of listening patiently to a friend or relative even though we have heard the same story before.

 

For all these things, O God, Zokhrenu – please remember us, and inspire us to do more such acts this coming year.

 

 

For the mitzva of making an effort to be cheerful.

 

For the mitzva we performed by buying fuel-efficient cars.

 

For the mitzva we performed by voting.

 

For the mitzva we performed by seeing and sensing God’s presence in the world;

 

For the mitzva of tipping properly in restaurants.

 

For the mitzva of treating secretaries and salespeople with respect.

 

For the mitzva we performed by accepting responsibility for wrongs we have done and not blaming our bad behavior on someone else;

 

For the mitzva we performed by forgiving those who have hurt us and who seek our forgiveness;

 

For the mitzva we performed by admitting we were wrong.

 

For the mitzva we performed by apologizing.

 

 

For all these things, O God, Zokhrenu – please remember us, and inspire us to do more such acts this coming year.

 

 

 

 

 

©Rabbi Bonnie Koppell

rabbibjk@gmail.com

[1] Hornby, Nicholas, How to Be Good, NY: Riverhead Books, 2001, p. 92

[2] Hornby, op.cit., p. 94

[3] Hornby, op. cit., p. 142

[4] Hornby, op. cit., p. 156

[5] Cohn, Rabbi Edward Paul, “From Where I Stand”, quoted in The American Rabbi, High Holy Days 2002/5763, p. 194

[6] The American Rabbi, Fall 2000, p. 18

[7] quoted in The American Rabbi, High Holy Days 2002, p. 84

[8] ibid., p. 85

[9] Sikhot HaRan 47

[10] told by Rabbi Reuven Taff

[11] Pirke Avot 2:21

[12] Genesis Rabba 67:3

[13] Kushner, Harold S., How Good Do We Have to Be?, NY: Little Brown and Company, 1996, p. 181

[14] ibid., p. 177

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1 comment

  1. Paula Ross

    This is very touching and so appropriate for this holy time of year. I have passed this e-mail on to my non-Jewish daughter-in-law, along with translations of some of the Hebrew words and phrases. I know she will appreciate it.

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