William Hamilton
William Hamilton

For goodness sake

I recently learned that it took a full year to find witnesses to testify at the Eichmann trial back in the early 1960s. Why? Because those who survived were worried their stories would not be believed. The atrocities they lived through made them cease to believe in people.

It can be hard to believe in people, to believe in human goodness. The enlightenment and democracy have done little to quiet hate-inspired violence. Technology isn’t faring much better. And I wish I could say better things about religion’s track-record throughout history and today.

How then can we retain a faith in goodness? “Vacate wickedness by doing good” is how Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel reads the psalmist’s formula (Ps. 34:15; 37:27).  In other words, addition of good deeds is the means by which we subtract bad ones. Activate something good to crowd out something evil.

A way forward for survivors, Rabbi Tamar Elad-Applebaum reminded us this week, involves a rediscovery of belief in people. Three steps are essential. First, roomy space is required to safely sit with one’s emotions, however painful they may be. Then, storytelling follows. Even more important is story-listening and story-believing. When you believe in a survivor’s story, you, by your belief, literally become evidence for the believability of people. Yes, some people can be inhumanly cruel. And, yes, still others can be tenderly kind. Having earned their trust, you sit alongside them for as long as they need to hold still. And then you rise together.

This week’s portions of Torah teach us about the fluidity of ritual purity. Moving in and out of its state is something we do all of our lives – from childbirth to burial preparation. Importantly, treatment requires the attention of others. It cannot be diagnosed and healed alone.

It’s interesting that the Levitical passages lack any trace of emotions. Although prophets feel fiercely, biblical priests show no emotion. Instead, they methodically adhere to procedure and process. It’s hard to know if and how they themselves change. Then again, being surrounded by so much transition, guilt, gratitude, and forgiveness, it would be hard to imagine that they did not.

For goodness sake, perhaps take a few minutes this weekend to sit with someone to invite storytelling, story-listening, and story-believing. As your sincerity affirms their beliefs, you may discover how they have revived yours too.

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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