Deserving?

“You can make it if you try” is a message that’s meant to inspire us.  But it also leads to resentment.  It congratulates those who enjoy success.  But it denigrates those who struggle.

For the smug, it suggests that those on top deserve their fate as much as those on the bottom deserve theirs.  Even worse. it can cause self-doubt in the eyes of those who struggle.  Confessing ‘my failure is my own doing’ generates shame and can lead to blame.

But what about factors beyond our control?  What about forces beyond our deserving?  Our good friend and teacher Michael Sandel asserts that we need the humility to recognize the role of good fortune, luck, and grace in shaping outcomes.  Yes, hard work should be rewarded.  When it is, our sense of humility and responsibility should reposition our approach to those whose unrewarded hard work finds them feeling humiliation and resentment.

Forgiving grace is evident in this week’s portion of Torah.  The Scouts determination not to seek entry into the covenanted land infuriates God.  Yet Moses persuades God to forgive.  The sinning generation is condemned to wander, while the next generation will proceed to covenantal fulfillment.  Is such forgiveness deserved?

A graciously pardoning God says “My forgiveness is contingent on your (Moses’) words” (Num. 14:20).  Forgiveness is not free.  It is earned.  It results from “your words” (d’varecha) which can also mean “your works”.  But it also depends upon Divine grace, on God’s endless propensity to forgive.  This is how we can understand the earning of forgiveness every Yom Kippur when quote this passage on Kol Nidre.  Atonement involves hard work.  And still, the forgiveness from another is not entirely in our hands.

Ours is a tradition that insists upon accountability.  Yet it is important that we not confer infallibility on outcomes.

May we deserve our bounty more by blending humility for our achievements with empathy for those whose toil and labor still awaits the bounty it deserves.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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