For goodness sake

“I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”   These words of James Baldwin – the protagonist in the exceptional new film I am not your Negro – may be correct.  Yet the assumptions of the hater may not be.  Letting go of hate does not seal a destiny of pain.  But a victim of hatred may experience considerable pain when struggling in vain to earn a hater’s love..

We live in times when it is increasingly important to do the right things for the right reasons.  Not to win the approval of the critic.  Not to gain advantage or applause.  Not for the sake of pleasure or popularity.  Rather we do the right because it is intrinsically right. 

This week’s portion of Torah dives deep into biblical morality revealing numerous laws governing personal responsibility.  Yet rewarding outcomes are conspicuously absent.  Our sages in Pirke Avot (1:3) make it clear that compliance with commands must not expect compensation.   Even doing good for the wrong reasons might come to vex good habits.  We must not let ourselves be talked out of doing the right thing by the disdain of others.  When their contempt is persuasive, we reward and reinforce it by disfiguring our ways.

A person passes by his enemies’ overburdened donkey.  The animal’s owner sits indifferently and says, “Relieve the burden if you will” while not lifting a finger to join in the effort.  The rabbis emphasize that the person may only help when the effort is shared with the animal’s owner.  “If you see the overloaded donkey of someone you dislike you must make every effort to unload it with him (imo)” (Ex. 23:5).  Responsibility requires reciprocity.

A century ago the Zionist thinker Ahad Ha’am wrote,  “The most dangerous thing for a nation or an individual is to plead guilty to imaginary sins.”  We must avoid taking our moral temperature by using the wrong instruments. 

Paraphrasing President Lincoln in honor of his recent birthday, may we inspire lives of the good, by the good, and for the good, to ensure that intrinsic goodness shall not perish from the earth. 

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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