William Hamilton

Growing for good

“You must realize” an Auschwitz guard told a young Rabbi Marc Samuels as he crushed quarry stones, “that the reason your People are being treated this way is because of you fought poorly for Germany in the last war which resulted in our shameful defeat.” Rabbi Samuel passed away this week – may his memory bless as his life did.  Years ago when he shared this story with me, I asked if the guard ever spoke to him again.  “I never saw him again.  A superior must have seen him talking to me that day.  So he was sent away and condemned.”

It is in this week’s portion of Torah where we find God’s promise to never again obstruct or alter nature or human nature.  The covenant with Noah after the Flood finds God swearing off future interventions.  “I won’t curse the ground on account of humankind again” God says “because the inclination of the human heart is bad from their youth (mi-ne’urav), and I won’t strike all the living again as I have done” (Gen. 8:21).  Life’s continuity is affirming.  But the divine resignation that enables it is not.  Human misconduct is hardwired in the heart?  It feels less like a promise and more like a compromise. 

But this year it occurred to me that this lowering of expectations around human conduct needs to be understood in the context of God’s prior assessment of human nature.  Two chapters earlier in last week’s portion, we hear an even gloomier appraisal that incites the Flood’s destruction.  “The Lord saw that human wickedness was immense and pervasive on earth, and that every inclination of his heart was only bad continually” (Gen. 6:5).  In light of this initial estimation of human depravity, the declaration following the flood feels less categorical.  If it is ‘from our youth’ (mi-ne’urav) that we incline toward wickedness, we can mature toward becoming hardwired for goodness. 

Our tradition affirms that the holy can keep the good from being defeated.  We can and do scatter seeds of justice and compassion to pierce our armor of indifference.  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, “At the end of days evil will be conquered by the One; in historic times, evils must be conquered one by one.” 

We grow toward the good one deed at a time.  Being audible with goodness-affirming words matters.  Being visible with good actions matters more.  Join us next Sunday when our synagogue campus hosts a town wide Action Fair.  Encourage similar Action Fairs in municipalities wherever you live.  May each of us become stakeholders in a fresh project that redeems faith 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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