Holiness and Goodness

 In Spirituality

What a joy to be together with this beautiful community to begin a day of sharing and learning devoted to the theme of “Wholiness.” I want to thank Nancy Weinberger, Gail Alcaly, Teri Cohen, Simone Schwartz, and Janet Yellish, along with their committee, for all of their hard work to make this event possible.  I know that when I come to these kind of events, all I really want to do is spend time with all of the amazing friends who are present- the speakers and the workshops are entirely secondary to the goal of being with so many people that I love.  Is it any wonder that the quintessential Jewish dance is the hora, a dance of community celebrating together.

Holiness, your theme for the day is the foundation of Jewish spirituality. Judaism does not teach that in order to have an experience of holiness we need to remove ourselves from society, climb a mountain, meditate and contemplate.  Rather, it challenges us to drive in traffic, get married, have a job and children, AND, to maintain a sense of holiness in our lives.  We do this through the path of blessing and the cultivation of gratitude, through a constant process of self-reflection focused on expanding our own character.  “You shall be holy,” we read in the Torah, “as I, God, am holy.” (Leviticus 19:2)

Nick Hornby wrote a book called, “How To Be Good, “ 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? He longs for a sense of meaning, a sense of holiness, in his life.

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 hesitation regarding 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.   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?  How can we be forces for healing in our troubled world?

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]  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]  So, the question we come to wrestle with today is, what are we willing to do to be forces for holiness in our own lives and in the world?

“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 child 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]  The reality is that we are all God’s hands and God’s hearts. Listen to these inspiring words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “When I was young I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.”

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”.   We who are created in the Divine image, are challenged to bring holiness to our world through our compassion and caring.

I had the honor to serve in the US Army Reserve for 38 years.  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.

Rabbi Harold Kushner sums it up well 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.”[7]  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.”[8]

It is so easy and all too tempting to be judgmental. As we gather here today to focus on our own inner development, let’s conclude by connecting with our sense of compassion and caring for each other.  I invite you to think of a person in this room from whom you perhaps feel estranged.  Maybe there were harsh words exchanged or some personal slight. It is inevitable in human relationships that tensions arise.  Yet, as we seek to create holiness in our lives, it is healing for us to let go of resentment and judgement.  Think about that person and hold their image in your mind as you close your eyes.

  1. With your attention on the person, repeat to yourself: “Just like me, this person is seeking some happiness for (his or her) life.”
  2. With your attention on the person, repeat to yourself: “Just like me, this person is trying to avoid suffering in (his or her) life.”
  3. With your attention on the person, repeat to yourself: “Just like me, this person has known sadness, loneliness and despair.”
  4. With your attention on the person, repeat to yourself: “Just like me, this person is seeking to fill (his or her) needs.”
  5. With your attention on the person, repeat to yourself: “Just like me, this person is learning about life.

Open your eyes and let’s learn about life together here today.


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

[8] ibid., p. 177

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