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Private goodness vs. Platform goodness

A fellow-learner in her mid-20s from our community told me something impressive this week. “It’s not important to me to convince others that I’m a good person.” She calmly went on. “So much of the world is trying to convince other people of how they want to see in themselves. It’s almost like they’re trying to prove to others that they’re good, because they aren’t so sure. In reality, if they directed more of that energy toward doing good stuff and talking about it less, they’d more than make the point.”

Her observation got me thinking about the dynamic between public and private goodness. We all know the difference between broadcasting and keeping quiet, between posting every righteous position we take and preserving the purity of a good deed by keeping it below-the-radar.

In this week’s prophetic teaching, Ezekiel describes the daily offerings for a rebuilt Temple. He repeats, in three consecutive verses, the Hebrew phrase for the day-to-day practice, ba-boker ba-boker (Ez 36:13,14, 15). It ordinarily means: “morning after morning.” I prefer to figuratively render it: the earliest part of pre-dawn morning (the boker of the boker). As in, “the most morning part of the morning.” It is when the stars are subtly fading from the sky, while still remaining dark out. Even before the rooster awakens. This is when the righteous would venture up to Jerusalem’s Temple. Why? Because they would not be seen. The dark-hour would keep their offering from being noticed by others. Their generosity would never be done to attract congratulations for their ego.

This is the purity of private goodness. It’s platform-free.

Of course, public goodness does have a vital role. It inspires others to act in kind. Copycat good deeds are important and praiseworthy. You and I could never invent all the different ways of doing good things in the world. So we’re grateful for the drive and stimulation of platformed goodness. But you know how tender it feels to be caught in-the-act of doing a kind deed, something you had chosen not to boast about.

If you find that you’re outsourcing your own self-validation, then you may be in trouble. It’s never a good idea to locate your self-love entirely inside the hearts of others. Next time you’re able to do so, pause, and ask yourself: Am I posting this be of value to myself or to other people? Then consider what it might feel like to preserve its privacy, keeping it untarnished by the public square.

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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