Can we recognize our own goodness?
There was a time in my youth, my 22nd birthday, when I felt my own goodness. It was a specific moment on that day: I sat curled on my bed making calls and sending messages of blessing, funneling that extra power I was taught we hold on our Hebrew birthdays.
As life rolled onward, I looked upon that girl, cloistered in her fortress of purity, as scarcely reaching her purest goodness. Not because I secretly, say, harbored murky undercurrents, but because I had recognized my own goodness. Because I’d felt something like pixie dust sprayed upon me, particles that didn’t emerge from some tension, some hardship—now suspect to me in later years. This moment serves for me now as a placebo goodness, a point on the graph from which, for my own betterment, I’m lead to seek out its furthest counterpoint.
So how then do I know that I’m being good especially if, at worst, knowledge of my own goodness seems to signal its paucity or, at best, jeopardizes its continuity if dwelt upon or even noted? And how, then, can I be good without a benchmark for it?
In my quest to label my moments and create a more truthful, though relative, personal aspiration, I’ve set these criteria for myself:
A) Self-knowledge of goodness complicates the goodness, and therefore the knowledge must be external, objective and perhaps received from other people. I imagine it as goodness conceived—outwardly-envisioned about myself—and not perceived from the inside.
B) The goodness, noticed externally, must have emerged from a thicket, a dip in a ravenous stream, on the heels of a moment in which my particular character and inner makeup have been tested. Goodness is not our nature per se, it’s what emerges from between points of constriction, “crushed for illumination,” just as the requisite for the oil of our ancient menorah.
C) The acknowledgment of our goodness in a given moment must produce a forward momentum, as opposed to one that has us ogling the moment, stunted by our laurels. It begets further goodness like “Mitzvah goreret mitzvah,” not a glib aphorism but a veritable litmus test.
In the first criteria, there is knowledge but it is likely told to me, and I hold it as object. Granted, I assess what I’m told of my good deed with years of self-knowledge, knowing the peaks and sharp ravines of my nature and its concealed, little fissures, but I can stand back, and even when the compliment is repeated to me, I don’t necessarily label the moment or deed as such. I don’t exactly see what they see. When my one-year-old son caught a mysterious virus that attacked his body, to my knowledge I did what a regular mom would do as I spent a month with him in the ICU. But some of those around me told me of my strength, and five years later, I still can’t pin that word to my behavior during that time. I note it and try to imagine what was visible to others, but I’m not able to dwell upon the descriptions; I was just doing my job. Further, being told of this good does make me question if, down the line, the recognition will add or subtract to my capacity for goodness. Just like the Torah holds back the full compliments for, say, Noach and Moshe Rabbeinu, we are lead to doubt that noting a person’s natural or emergent qualities in full elaboration before them will help them grow their qualities. Primed with this concept, the first time I watched CNN Heroes, I cringed. Yes, we learn of the amazing initiatives of humans in service of other humans, and, yes, it makes viewers question our idleness against an array of human needs that we can address, but what of the heroes themselves? Will they measure their own subsequent momentum to be stronger, plans more bountiful? And does the desire and execution of giving remain just as pure or purer than before?
Second, such goodness is not a feature of some natures and not others. I remember that as a kid, maybe to understand the presence of my inner turmoil, I would seek out personas of “natural goodness.” I told one classmate, “You seem like you never get mad.” She insisted, almost insulted, “Yes I do.” Of course, who wants to hold the Pristine Heart Prize, knowing well its inner tumult? While reading Louisa May Alcott’s classic Civil War-era novel Little Women that follows, like a study of the permutations of the female character, the varying paths of the four March sisters, it was the sickly Beth who caught my eye and registered as saint-like. Only later did I realize that, doomed to catch disease and remain shuttered at home, she had taken herself out of the realm of the living, once admitting to her sisters that she wouldn’t merit the same life of steep joy and egregious mistakes. With these re-readings, I slowly reset the spectrum I had long been attempting to draw out. I thought of our own saints, and though we know our mother Rachel and our tribal heads Yehudah and Yosef as the ultimate tzaddikim, it would be hard not to note specific moments in the Torah’s account that seem a particular squeeze for them and for anyone. Rachel’s sister is given in her stead to the Yaakov she knows to be hers—and she sends her sister to that marital bed with the dignity of the secret signs she shared with Yaakov. As his daughter-in-law Tamar is led to the stake, her own reticence the ultimate sacrifice to preclude his embarrassment, Yehudah must make the ultimate turnaround from endorser of her fate to humbled implicator. And Yosef HaTzaddik had to expunge any trace of grudge when he went from pit and mercy of his brothers to leader and sustainer in their hour of need. What did they see in themselves at these moments? Did they know their own goodness?
I’ve found the ultimate litmus test of our goodness burrowed in the pages of Kuntres HaHitpaalut, the second Chabad rebbe’s guide to help us more truly judge the levels of our spiritual excitement. Beware, Rabbi DovBer says, of the “frothing” of the emotions, the “boiling” of the blood (chapter 8) that seems to result in…well, boiled and then cooled blood. We watch our own holy excitement while learning, especially that take-off ratzo effect and test: do I float away, not actually “tolerating further explanation” from this text, source of my inspiration (chapter 21), or do I contain my exuberance and anchor more deeply into its subsequent lines? Goodness, like the degrees of excitement while learning, should be judged in its forward momentum. After a moment of emerged goodness, do I, that person, plunge forward, threading thought to thought, goodness to new plan for goodness, or do I remain transfixed upon the moment, buoyed by self-recognition, legs aloft, stunted by the lustrous vision of that “good” fellow below?
In this inner assessment, I revert to the words and ways of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, particularly because I have found no greater paradigm of character calibration than he. Recently, I read a letter in which the Rebbe shares his effusive gratitude to someone working hard to recover vintage chassidic manuscripts, what the Rebbe called a spiritual “pidyon shvuyim,” return of the captives. The Rebbe says at the outset that it took him time to respond because he had to calm his excitement, but that in any case, the message had to be sent without further delay. These words, merely introductory comments in this letter, have become for me a guide to all instances in which the fancy takes flight. Yes, we must distinguish our deeds one from the next, pointing as if from afar, “There, that is my best good moment so far”—for how else will we know where to go?—but it will only act as “signpost” for us if it causes a proliferation. And for that we need to calibrate the recognition of goodness, steering the excess energy into the next good deed.
Schneuri, Rabbi DovBer. (2015). Kuntres HaHitpaalut. Neirot Foundation of Jewish Thought.
** This article is written in honor of my new little one, Tinok ben Odelia; may he go from strength to strength.