Greatness from Goodness

Sampson had last two consecutive Senatorial campaigns.  He had a couple of liabilities that challenged his aptitude for political victory.  First, he seemed to care more about better outcomes for his constituency – making sure the wrong person didn’t get into office – than he cared about his own success.  Secondly, he was the kind of lawyer who could not bring himself to defend a guilty client.  Once, during criminal trial, he leaned over to his associate and said: “This many is guilty; you defend him, I can’t.”

Adam Grant tells of Sampson’s career in his book Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives our Success.  Sampson’s generosity and integrity were finally rewarded when we won national office on his third try.  Sampson was his ghost name.  His real name was Abraham Lincoln.  He is widely revered as among the least egotistical of all of our Presidents.  In the words of one military general who worked with Lincoln, “he seemed to possess more of the elements of greatness, combined with goodness, than any other.”

By contrast, ‘takers’ who focus on ‘what’s in it for me’ can be toxic.  This week’s portion of Torah is named for such a taker in Korah whose rebellion is punitively put down.  But instead of learning lessons, the people become more agitated.  “All the congregation of Israel complained the next day (memacharat) against Moses and Aaron” (Num. 17:6).  They repudiate the demise of even those deserving punishment.  What does put a stop to this infernal escalation of anger and violence?  Not an earth-jolting reprimand, but a fragrant and gentle message.  “It was on the next day (memacharat) that Aaron’s staff had blossomed, flowering with a blossom that produced almonds” (Num. 17:23).  Soothing calm presides only after the flowering of Aaron’s staff (va-yatzeitz tzitz).  The mention of tzitz brings us back to the fringes of our garments (tzitzit) for help in addressing our society’s knottiest conflicts.  The fringes with which last week’s portion concluded, surround us with an aromatic scent designed to dispel odious toxins.  Incense helps vacate the incensed. 

What qualifies the staff of Aaron to lower the temperature of an overheated conflict is Aaron’s selfless conduct.  Instructed by Moses to take incense into an afflicted multitude is what stems a devastating plague (Num. 17:11-12).  HIs taking personal responsibility for helping qualified him as a healer.

Lincoln understood this when he sought to bind up the wounds of the most blood-soaked conflict in the history of our nation.  With malice toward none and charity toward all, slavery was our collective responsibility.  ‘Takers’ specialize in finger-pointing.  ‘Givers’ responsibly extend willing hearts and hands.   

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel captures the spirit of divine generosity that can insinuate itself into our lives when he says,“We receive all when we ask for nothing.” 

This week’s portion specializes in aggravated conflict.  May it’s lesson and the life of one of it’s most devoted readers (our nation’s 16th President), inspire our lives.

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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