Great to Good

Ask the average person which is better, to be great or to be good, and most will prefer greatness. And while the great typically have a leg up on the good, it is worth recalling that God does not esteem the earliest creatures of creation with the words “Behold it is great.”

Although great things stand tall, goodness implies something impressive – perhaps even exceptional – the capacity grow, to become better, to be more. 

What makes America exceptional?  History offers different answers.  City on a hill.  Manifest destiny.  Of the people, by the people.  Ask not.  Morning in America.  With political conventions now behind us, it feels worthwhile to consider, What makes us good?

Goodness is not perfection.  It actually requires imperfection.  It is found in the ways we respond and recover and restore.  America has always looked to biblical voices for direction.  Mythic heroes may have achilles heels but biblical heroes strive to heal from dislocated hips.   

As Jews we are now in the season when we prepare for Tisha B’Av observance, recalling the painful destruction of the Temple and its exilic aftermath.  We don’t paper-over our low points.  Sin led to exile.  We dwell in narrow places for the sake of more expansive ones.

The Torah introduces us to five daughters of Tzlofchad who step forward to request land inheritance (given the absence of a male inheritor). They do so with candor.  “Our father died in the wilderness, not as part of the Korah revolt, but he died because of his own sin” (Num. 27:3).  The daughters carefully confess about their father that, although not part of the earth-quaking rebellion of Korah, he did die on account of a transgression.  God rewards their honesty by adding an additional inheritance mitzvah (Num. 27:6-11).  A sinful stain becomes the touchstone for an enduring heritage. The sages further commend: “Grateful are those whose words/deeds evoke Divine agreement Ashrei Adam SheHaMakom hodeh al dvarav (Sifre). God’s kinship is with transparency, confession, and restoration.

With our flags flying at half-staff this summer as often as they fly and full height, it is good to pause and re-value the ancient yet ongoing virtue of rising when we fall, recovering when we stumble, renewing when we experience reversals.  May Judaism’s sustained tutorial in striving for goodness continue to thrive in America and continue to challenge us for good.

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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