by Jeff Jacoby
Once in the fourth grade, I got caught in a lie. It wasn't an especially
egregious lie; it endangered no one's safety or property. I simply avoided
a school activity by falsely claiming that I had my parents' permission not
to take part. Somehow I was found out.
Here is how seriously the Hebrew Academy of Cleveland took that small lie.
The assistant principal came to my classroom, interrupting the lesson that
was in progress. He wrote a quotation from Exodus on the blackboard:
"Midvar sheker tirchak." He asked what the words meant, and made a point
of calling on me to give the answer. "Keep away from lies," I said.
When he finished this impromptu exercise on the gravity of lying, he had me
go back with him to his office. Only then did I find out that he knew
about my lie. He took a book from the office safe, turned to a clean page,
and wrote down the lie that I had told. I had to sign the page and date
it; the book went back into the safe.
Needless to say, I was mortified. But I learned some important lessons
that day. I learned that my lies could disgrace me, that words are not
easily erased, and that the adults in my life noticed when I did something
WHY JEWISH VALUES MATTER
Why is a Jewish education -- a Torah education -- so important? So that
our Jewish heritage will be reinforced in the present and transmitted to
the future? Yes. So that the rhythms of the Jewish day and the Jewish
week and the Jewish year will continue unabated in every Jewish community?
Yes. So that Jewish families will be better able to observe the holidays
and perform the commandments? Yes.
But those don't answer the real question: Why does Jewish tradition -- Jewish values -matter?
Let me suggest at least a small part of the answer: Judaism matters to the
whole world because it is a system for making human beings decent. For
turning men into menschen. The timeless mission of the Jews is to make the
world better by making people better. We do so by standing for the
proposition that there is one God Who created and rules this world and Who
cares profoundly about the way people act.
For 3,500 years, Jews have been telling themselves, their children, and the rest of the world: Be good. Be kind. Be honest. Be ethical. Be moral. It is the most revolutionary message in human history, and we are the people who were chosen to deliver it -- to be, as the prophet Isaiah said, an "or lagoyim" -- a light unto
FEEL GOOD VERSUS DO GOOD
Contemporary society says, "The important thing is to feel good about what
you're doing." Judaism says, "The important thing is to do good, regardless of what you feel."
The belief that feeling good is more important than doing good is all too
prevalent in the secular world around us. That is one reason many of us
send our children to religious schools. We know that they are far more
likely to grow into ethical young men and women than if they're encouraged
to believe that how they feel about themselves matters more than how they
act toward others.
Judaism would love for you to be passionate about giving charity, visiting
the sick, avoiding gossip, telling the truth on your tax return. Judaism
would be delighted if you performed those mitzvot from the heart. But what
if your heart isn't in it? What if you don't really feel like doing one of
Judaism says: Do it anyway. It is beautiful to feel charitable, but
it is far more beautiful to actually give charity. It's wonderful if you
never feel the temptation to say bad things about other people, but it is
considerably more wonderful to refrain from saying them even when you are
CONSISTENT ACTS OF THOUGHTFUL KINDNESS
There's a popular bumper sticker that says: "Practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty."
At first glance, it seems a warm, uplifting sentiment. In a world filled
with random cruelty, what could be more welcomed than some unexpected
kindness? With all the senseless violence human beings inflict on each
other, we can all use a little more beauty in our lives. Who wouldn't welcome
anything that can inspire us to deeds of kindness and beauty -- even if
only an expression on a bumper sticker?
Yet the more I see this expression, the more it bothers me. The words
are sweet. But taken literally, they convey a troubling message.
For what our society needs more of is not random kindness, but sustained
and dependable kindness; not senseless acts of beauty, but beautiful
behavior that is deliberately cultivated. Of course a random kindness is better than
no kindness at all. But it is the ethical equivalent of sitting down at the
piano to bang out "Chopsticks": quick, easy, and not very serious.
The meaning that lurks in the interstices of "Practice random kindness"
is that treating others with compassion and decency is something to be done
as a lark. That is not a philosophy that promotes kindness as an essential
element of good character. It is a philosophy that promotes kindness as a
fun activity for a slow weekend.
This attitude suffuses the recent spate of "kindness" books. "Random Acts of
Kindness," for example, suggests buying coffee for strangers in a diner or secretly
washing a neighbor's car.
Something called "The Kindness Society" offers this on its web site:
"Random acts of kindness are those sweet or lovely things we do for no
reason except that, momentarily, the best of our humanity has sprung into
full bloom. When you spontaneously give an old woman the bouquet of red
carnations you had meant to take home to your own dinner table, when you
give your lunch to the guitar-playing homeless person who makes music at the
corner..., when you anonymously put coins in someone else's parking
meter..., you are doing not what life requires of you, but what the best of
your human soul invites you to do."
I am all for spontaneously giving bouquets to old women. Any good deed
is to be encouraged, even if it is only done on a whim. But if kindness is
merely spur-of-the-moment gestures, if it is "not what life requires of
you," why bother? Because it feels good? Then what happens when it doesn't feel
good? What happens when it takes a real effort of will -- or a financial
sacrifice -- or a significant commitment of time -- to treat someone with
kindness and charity?
How different is the understanding of kindness conveyed by Abraham, the father
of the Jewish nation. Each of the three Biblical patriarchs is regarded as the
exemplar of a particular trait, and Abraham is remembered above all for his
acts of loving-kindness. (Isaac's trait is self-sacrifice; Jacob is the
paradigm of scholarliness.)
The Bible portrays Abraham as a man intensely concerned with the comfort
and well-being of others. He leaves his sickbed when he sees strangers in
the distance, ignoring his pain in order to show them hospitality. He pleads
with God to spare the cruel sinners of Sodom and Gomorrah. So thoroughly
does he inculcate the habit of kindness in the members of his household that
when his servant Eliezer journeys to find a wife for Isaac, the litmus test he
applies is one of compassion: He looks for a girl who is willing not only
to offer him a drink of water, but to draw water for his camels as well -- a
This is kindness of a far higher order than washing your neighbor's car or handing out carnations in the street.
"Jews are the compassionate children of compassionate parents," the
Talmud teaches. "One who is merciless toward his fellow creatures is no
descendant of our father Abraham." Jewish tradition teaches that kindness
is what life requires of you.
The sages taught that God Himself is the original model of kindness: He
clothed Adam and Eve when they were naked, visited Abraham when he was
sick, comforted Isaac in his grief, buried Moses after he died. We, who are
commanded to follow in God's ways (Deuteronomy 13:5), must likewise clothe
the naked, visit the sick, comfort the bereaved, bury the dead. We pray on
Rosh Hashana for God to treat us with charity and kindness -- asei imanu
tzedaka va'chesed -- not randomly but daily, not on a whim but constantly.
He wants the same from us. "For I desire kindness, not sacrifices," said
the prophet Hosea 2,700 years ago.
A few years ago, Robert Simon, a philosophy professor at Hamilton College,
wrote about the inability of his students to make a definitive moral
judgment -- even a judgment that the Holocaust was evil. "Of course I
dislike the Nazis," one student said, "but who is to say they are morally
wrong?" At Harvard, James Q. Wilson encountered a similar reluctance to
condemn the Holocaust: "It all depends on your perspective," one student
told him. Another commented: "I'd just have to see these events through
the eyes of the people affected by them."
Something has clearly gone awry when students at prestigious institutions
of higher learning cannot bring themselves to denounce Auschwitz and
Treblinka. Too many Americans now shrink from appearing "judgmental" or
"moralistic" -- the very words themselves are now used only as pejoratives.
The prevailing attitude is: "Who's to say what's right or wrong?"
We live, these days, in a sea of nonjudgmentalism. In schools, on the
campuses, in the media, there is a belief that all cultures and ways of
life are equally valid, that no one is entitled to judge another person's
behavior or views.
Even after September 11, there were prominent voices that refused to
categorically condemn the terrorists who had slaughtered so many innocent
people. Reuters, the British wire service, decided as a matter of policy
not to call Al Qaeda and the hijackers "terrorists" -- on the grounds that "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter."
Worse than this caution against distinguishing between good and evil is Stephen Jay Gould's assertion in a New York Times op-ed written shortly after 9/11 that goodness is common and evil infrequent.
"In this moment of crisis," wrote Gould, the late Harvard biologist, it is important to affirm the "essential truth" that "good and kind people outnumber all others by thousands to one" -- as at Ground Zero, which has now become "a vast web of bustling goodness, channeling uncountable deeds of kindness from an entire planet." The horrors of history are caused not by a "high frequency of evil people," Gould said, but by the terrible destructiveness of "rare acts of evil."
It is true that there has been an outpouring of benevolence since Sept. 11; it is natural for members of a community to come together in a crisis. But it is not true that human nature is essentially good or that evil is rare. And it is the worst kind of wishful thinking to believe otherwise.
Decency and compassion may be conspicuous at the moment, but where were decency and compassion during the centuries of slavery, when men and women were reduced to chattel? Where were decency and compassion when the Nazis killed two-thirds of Europe's Jews with the approval of a vast legion of "willing executioners?" Where were decency and compassion when 800,000 Rwandans were butchered by their fellow citizens? When Bosnian women were herded into camps to be raped? When Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death in her middle-class New York neighborhood as dozens of neighbors ignored her cries for help?
The unwelcome truth is that most people are not innately good and kind. Our willingness to commit or acquiesce in cruelty and meanness is considerable. Gould's belief in humanity's essential goodness is an act of blind faith -- touching, in a way, but harmful. For if people are naturally decent and moral, there is no urgent need to teach decency and morality. If "good and kind people outnumber all others by thousands to one," it isn't necessary for people to hone their character, to work at virtue and ethics as diligently as they might work at pitching or piano playing.
As a secular humanist, Gould had to believe in human nature: For him there was no higher authority. But those who believe in God and a transcendent moral code do not need Gould's rose-colored glasses. We are able to acknowledge humanity's moral weakness and capacity for evil without despairing. For we understand that even though goodness and kindness don't outweigh evil by thousands to one, each of us can become -- with effort -- a better and kinder person. Only in that way can the fight against evil in the world make any real progress.
A child who grows up with a Torah education knows that there is good and
evil in the world, and knows that he is expected to strengthen the good and
counter the bad. Wrote King David in the 97th Psalm: "Ohavei Hashem sin'u ra" -- if you love God, hate evil! That is the moral passion that Judaism has encouraged for 3,500 years -- and that is why those who are imbued with its values understand that the evil of this world is very real indeed, and that all of us have an obligation to do our best to fight it.
Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.
Reprinted with permission from Aish.com.