Why be good?

In the late 1950s, Golda Meir led Israeli efforts to aid African countries with infrastructure development. “Like us,” she would say, “their freedom was won only after years of struggle. Like us, they had to fight for statehood.  And like us, nobody handed them their sovereignty on a silver platter.”  For a while Israel did grow a positive rapport with many African countries thanks to such agricultural and hydration assistance. But eventually this bloc of Nations would emerge as Israel’s opponents in the United Nations.  Were such efforts for naught?  Did they lack worthiness because they didn’t court favor?

Why do we do the good things we do?  To be congratulated or because there is something intrinsically right about doing right things. Too many of today’s considerations feel calculated, more and more transactional. 

This is not just a contemporary problem.  Toward the conclusion of the Book of Numbers, the Tribes of Reuben and Gad petition to be permitted to settle on the eastern side of the Jordan River (Num. 32:5).  Moses’s angrily challenges their callous disregard for the covenant and its land.  Recalling the sin of the Spies, he flares against them (Num. 32:14), “And now you, a breed of sinful men have replaced your fathers, to add still further to the Lord’s wrath against Israel?!”   He instructs them to join the rest of the Children of Israel in crossing the Jordan to conquer the Promised Land.  Only after successful settlement is realized, may they return to establish their homes in the cattle-rich lands on the east bank of the Jordan.  If you do thus, concludes Moses, then “you will be free and clear (v’ha-yitem n’kiim) before God and Israel” (Num. 32:22).

One commentator (Or HaChaim) stresses the centrality of proper intent.  They must execute their responsibility not for their own benefit (hana’atam) but for heaven’s sake (l’shem shamayim).  Indeed, the phrase “in front of God” (lifnei Adonai) occurs seven times throughout this Torah passage.  The implication of such repetition is profound.  Right things should be done with proper intent, for their intrinsic rightness, for heaven’s sake (lifnei Adonai).

Paraphrasing our Sages (Avot 5:19) “If goodness depends upon a specific cause, when the cause ends, so does the goodness.”  Yet elsewhere our Rabbis encourage, “Doing good at first for the wrong reasons might eventually lead a person to align with the intrinsically right reasons.”  There is nothing wrong with benefit.  Congratulations are pleasant and often richly deserved.  Perhaps the key is remaining faithful to the belief that personal benefit is not the only arbiter which proclaims an endeavor successful.  Golda Meir’s Israel policy sixty years ago, political calculus aside, was right.  It is no less so today.

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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