This post was originally delivered as a Yom Kippur sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in 2014/5775 as part of a series entitled “Why Bother?”. You can hear audio of the sermon through the Kol Hadash Podcast.
I once met with a family after the patriarch had died. As usual, I took out my pen and pad of paper and asked them to tell me about him. They said, “He worked hard, and he loved his family.” And that was it. So I asked, “Did he have any activities or hobbies he enjoyed?” “He worked hard, and he loved his family.” “How was he as a father?” “He worked hard, and he loved his family.” I realized that he probably was a jerk! If you did a personality survey based on how the deceased are portrayed in eulogies, you’d wonder what happened to all the mean people we meet. This is the wisdom behind the Yiddish expression “all brides are beautiful, all the dead are pious.” With this family, once I understood the dynamic, I put down my pen and asked them to talk freely, off the record. In the end we did find ways to present him well – he WAS loved by his family (if not, they would have trashed him!), and if he was hypercritical, I could say he “had high standards, he pushed us to succeed.” At a funeral, I have an obligation to meet the needs of the family, but I also have an obligation to the truth – I will not lie and say he was beloved by all, or that he made friends easily, or that he was very generous if he was none of those. It would not ring true to the family, and I would know it was a lie. At a rehearsal for one of my first Bar Mitzvahs with Kol Hadash, the student’s parent told him, “Don’t worry if you make a mistake in the Hebrew reading – no one will know.” The student said to himself (but I heard him), “But I’ll know.” And I complimented him for that. There is something in us, call it conscience or a sense of self, that maintains our own standards. When I’m hired for a life cycle event, they get my whole person – my mouth, sure, but also my brain, and along with my brain goes my sense of self, my ethical being.
WHY be a good person? Not a question you hear often. There are many routes to HOW to be a good person – secular ethical philosophies, political parties who are happy to tell you and how to behave, innumerable religions who are convinced that THEY have the true, right path. Recall the story of the man who goes to heaven and is given a tour, seeing all ethnicities and religions getting along. He then sees a walled off section with no windows and asks his guide why. The response: “Oh, that’s the Orthodox Jews. They think they’re the only ones here.” Of course, you could replace “Orthodox Jews” with “Roman Catholics” or “Greek Orthodox” or “Sunni Muslims” or “Shi’ite Muslims.” In past years, we have spent our High Holiday time exploring HOW to be a good person, what lessons to draw from the human experience across religious and cultural lines on what the good life should be. Out there, there are plenty of Yom Kippur sermons on how often people fail to be good; evidently some people go to synagogue to be made to feel bad. Perhaps it’s a kind of emotional atonement: if I confess my sins and listen to someone harangue me for a few hours, I’ll burn off some failure and feel better. Well, I don’t harangue people for their moral failings, even those seven of you who really deserve it. Which seven? I won’t tell you, but I will tell you why I won’t tell you.
Jewish folklore describes the Lamed Vovniks – 36 hidden righteous (traditionally men, we can say people) upon whom the world’s existence depends. Lamed vov is how to write the number 36 in 2 Hebrew letters. Those who know their Hebrew numerology will also remember that 36 is double Chai, 18 or life. One of the virtues of the lamed vovniks is great humility; often they themselves do not know that the world depends on them. If no one knows who are the lamed vovniks, 36 righteous people on whom the world depends, then you had better treat everyone as if they might be one, and act yourself as if you might be too! This is one answer to “why be good” – the world depends on it – but it won’t work for us. It presupposes a cosmic judgment for the collective sins of humanity, as well as a kind of vicarious atonement – someone else’s good deeds and righteousness avert disaster for all. You can hear echoes of the traditional Yom Kippur scapegoat, or another legend of a righteous individual suffering for the sins of humanity you may have heard elsewhere. Most important, the Lamed Vovnick story shows that the question of why be good and how be good are intertwined: until you’ve defined what it means to be good, you don’t know the answer to why be good or how to be good. For the lamed vovnik, piety is a cardinal virtue, whereas we might prioritize other qualities like courage for a worthy cause, kindness to those in needs, the willingness to challenge authority and think independently. Sometimes traditional Jewish ethics agree with us, sometimes they do not. Still, consider what our interactions would be like if we lived the legend of the lamed vovniks – if we truly believed that anyone we met could be someone on whom the world depends, or that we ourselves could have such a cosmic importance. We would talk kindly to each other, we would treat each other with respect and dignity, we would take others’ failings in the best possible light – “hypercritical” becomes “high standards” – we would examine our own actions to do our very best. The reason the lamed vovnick won’t work is that we know it’s a myth; but sometimes myth, even after its myth-ness is exposed, can still have positive influence if no longer absolute control.
Another example from Jewish literature, one of my favorite passages in the Exodus narrative. After the sin of the Golden Calf, God has decided to wipe out the Israelites and start over with Moses [Exodus 32]. “Your people have blown it for the last time!” He says (notice how it’s like parents – do you know what YOUR son just did?). Moses serves as God’s therapist, since He has an anger management issue, and talks him down – what would the other peoples say if you don’t fulfill your promises, you did promise YOUR people to bring them to their land, and so on. Later rabbis [BT Berakhot 32a] imagined what chutzpah it took to talk back to God, imagining Moses saying to himself, “How can I talk back? And yet, if I do not, something terrible will happen. Zeh talui bee – this hangs on me, depends on me.” We don’t have to be talking to a god to take the responsibility of acting when action is needed. And it does not need to be the entire universe that hangs on our deeds. Jewish tradition claims that if you save one life, it is AS IF you saved the whole world. Or to quote contemporary bumper sticker wisdom, think globally, act locally.
Deep in our psyches, we want what we do to count. We want someone to be keeping score, we want a system that rewards the good and punishes the bad. We want the answer to “why be good” to be “because it’s worth it” – you will get what you deserve. If the human experience in this life seems to contradict that desire, we invent all kinds of systems to make it true: heaven and hell, cosmic judgment at the end of days, karma that comes back to you, reincarnation up or down based on your deeds in a previous life. These religious beliefs all try to bring justice to the universe; they answer “why be good” – because someone is watching, and he knows if you are sleeping, he knows if you’re awake, knows if you’ve been bad or good…We might ask, if you’re only being good is because someone is watching you, does that really count as being good, or are you just minimally wise to avoid certain punishment? We understand our psychological needs and how we project them onto the universe, so these answers won’t work for us either. We know too many good people who died too soon to believe that the system is designed according to our moral agenda. I have done funerals for suicides, drug overdoses, young people with cancer, even a crib death, and seeing the pain the deaths cause their families is all the evidence I need.
Are there exactly seven people in this congregation with moral failings? There are seven, and seven times seven, and seven times seven times seven. I do not believe in original sin, or in any kind of supernatural sin for that matter. I do not believe that Jews are obligated to follow 613 commandments, so many and so restrictive that failure is inevitable and guilt is guaranteed. I do believe that morality, being good is an ideal, and human ideals are imposed on a material world that does not conform to our desires. Just as it may help to imagine ourselves to be one of the secret righteous, we must also accept that all of us have our failings. There are no saints, no matter what data funeral eulogies would provide. Gandhi was not a good parent, Martin Luther King Jr. had extramarital affairs, Mother Teresa refused to allow birth control in her missions no matter how it would have improved her charges’ lives. Sometimes we just have to make the best of who we are.
For two-and-a-half years, the School of Shammai and the School of Hillel debated. One group said, “It is better for humanity not to have been created than to have been created”; and the other said, “It is better for humanity to have been created than not to have been created.” They finally took a vote and decided that it were better for humanity not to have been created than to have been created, but now that they have been created, let them investigate their past deeds or, others say, let them examine their future actions. (BT Eruvin 13b)
Consider how this Talmudic argument is both useless and useful: 2 ½ years debating something you have no power to affect; what are you going to do, turn back the clock and wipe us out? Based on their ideals of a perfect universe, the schools agreed that the cosmos would have been better off without humanity. So what? Here’s how the argument becomes useful – we have to deal with reality. Hillel and Shammai might say, “what if God overheard the discussion, decided they were right, and sent another Flood with NO Noah?” Since we’re on thin cosmic ice anyways, they would say, we had better be good by looking back at what we’ve done or looking forward to what we will do. In our secular vocabulary, we might say the earth doesn’t need us to keep spinning, but we need the earth and each other. This is why we also need a Yom Kippur process of making things right, since all things human are not ideal. Imagining that we are a cosmic mistake is still mostly useless, because we were NOT created, and we will not be uncreated, at least until the sun explodes. And who’s motivated to be good by considering life a mistake?
We need OUR answer to “Why be good” that does not imagine we are cosmically important, or that our every deed is being scored in a Book of Life, or that we were a great mistake. The theme of our High Holiday explorations has been “why” rather than “how” – why be anything, why be Jewish, why be Jewish and a Humanist? Because if you can’t answer why, who cares about the how? If someone asks you “How can I break into my neighbor’s house?” don’t answer “with a crowbar;” say, “why would you want to do that?” The funerals I perform are mostly for genuinely good people; changing “hypercritical” to “high standards” happens less often than you might imagine.
Let us first ask what it means to be good, and maybe that will address the why for us. If Yom Kippur is about doing better, a road map to the good would be helpful. What is virtue? A perennial question in philosophy and religion. In Pirke Avot, Rabbinic sayings compiled in 200 CE, we read about four human types: the fool, the average, the wicked and the saint. Virtue is not the same as simply being obedient; following the rules makes you average, the lowest common denominator, but to merit the title “good” requires more. For some, self-sacrifice is a virtue – the rabbinic “saint” is the one who says “what’s yours is yours and what’s mine is yours,” while the average says “what’s yours is yours and what’s mine is mine” – the wicked says “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine”! [Pirke Avot 5:13] Virtue there is extreme generosity. For others, self-actualization is a higher value than self-sacrifice: in Maimonides’ famous ladder of charitable giving, the highest level is teaching the needy a profession so they no longer need charity. In science, theories can be proven true or false. My experience with philosophy has been that there is often an element of truth in both sides, which is why smart people can disagree. Being autonomous and in charge of our own lives rings the good bell, and so too does caring for others. Just as there is no one “how” be good, there is no one sense of what virtue is. When we study ethical choices across cultures, looking for common ethical principles, we find a few everywhere: treating others fairly, honoring your family, limiting violence, and so on. The trick is the balance among those values: is treating others fairly MORE IMPORTANT than honoring your family, or when you have a government job to fill should you automatically hire your cousin? In some cultures nepotism would be “bad,” while in others it’s unthinkable to help a stranger instead of your family. Defining what virtue could mean does not provide a clear reason “why be good,” since there are so many versions of virtue, even beyond religious piety. I once did a funeral for an older woman – I spoke first with her children, and then separately with her grandchildren over the next couple of days. I might have been talking about two different people! But she was – as a parent at 30, she was very different as a grandparent in her 60s. We learn over time, what we believed was good may change as we understand life differently and we ourselves have changed.
Why be good? We can always turn to evolution – if we understand who we are and how we came to be, perhaps that will shed light on how best to get along. Why was being “good” an evolutionary advantage? Humanity, certainly before modern times, always functioned in social groups – society did not begin with the political philosopher’s idealized state of nature, where autonomous individuals made social contracts. This past year, I read a fascinating article about a family in Siberia who fled Soviet control in 1930s, disappeared into the woods, and were not discovered until 1970s! They had lived on their own with almost no contact with civilization, no metal (since it rusted away after a decade), no medicine, no society, no culture beyond their own songs and their revered Bible. Two of the children had never known anyone but their immediate family. What made the story so striking was how amazing and unusual it was to be so isolated; whether it’s Aristotle’s claim “humanity is a social animal” or Genesis’ statement “it is not good for humanity to be alone,” we know deeply, as I’ve cited before, that people who need people are the luckiest people in the world. Groups with pro-social genes likely did better than groups with anti-social genes at caring for the sick and the young, collaborating for food and security, passing on accumulated knowledge and culture. We are more likely to trust others and work together if they have proven themselves to be trustworthy, what the group might define as “good” – honest, responsible, capable, etc. If someone has a track record of “good,” that is, pro-social behavior, we’re even more likely to forgive them for wronging us, or to accept their apology and move forward. So an evolutionary reason for “why be good” could be “it’s good for the group, and therefore good for you if you’re in the group.”
Or course, even if this evolutionary reconstruction is accurate, that’s not enough of a reason today. We evolved to eat meat, but plenty of us are healthy on vegetarian diets. We evolved with violent conflict between groups, but today we often channel it into sports, exercise, or workplace competition. Evolution weeds out weak traits, like my nearsightedness, but eyeglasses and lasik surgery means I was not selected against by a runaway bison; my children get to have just as many challenges with glasses and braces as I did! Using evolution to evaluate social behavior is tricky: there’s plenty of theory but limited experimental evidence, and the more we understand about human psychology and the impacts of human culture, the harder it is to tease out what is biological and what is cultural. When asked a question about the limited number of women scientists, the physicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson pointed out that as a black man, he was always encouraged to pursue sports even though he wanted to be a physicist since he was a child. If you see a person with an elephant sitting on them and they complain of chest pain, they might be having a heart attack, but you’ll never know until you remove the elephant. [can’t find a citation for that metaphor, though I know it’s not mine!]
There’s also a serious problem with the answer of “Ask not what your evolutionary subgroup can do for you, Ask what you can do for your evolutionary subgroup” – do I ever get to ask what the group does for me? Or what I get to do for myself? Only focusing on a group tramples the individual, though we also understand that only listening to the individual means a community of one. We do not run our personal lives or our Jewish lives purely on what the group thinks is good – some of us fast on Yom Kippur, some do not, and we celebrate the freedom to make our own choices. Someone who cares absolutely NOTHING about what any other person or society thinks is technically called a sociopath, but ONLY caring about what everyone else thinks is also a problem. Let’s change the scope, then – not why is it good for the group if individuals are good, but why might it be good for the individual to be good.
Why would we be good for ourselves, if not for others? Part of our sense of self comes from the kind of person we think we are, and so too does our ability to be good. Those who feel limited find it hard to be generous. Those who have been cheated may be less likely to trust, and more likely themselves to cheat. We love to think that we could suffer and do better, in the language of Jewish ethics, “do not oppress the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” [Exodus 23:9 and others] Or even just the golden rule, however you formulate it – do unto others as you would have them do unto you, or Hillel’s negative version: do not do to others what is hateful to you. But it’s very tempting to go instead for an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. If everyone else is cheating, why shouldn’t I? If someone screwed me over, then it’s a screw or be screwed world and I won’t get fooled again. In Israel, no one wants to be a frier, a sucker, the person taken advantage of. On the other hand, if we have a strong sense of self-worth, a deep seated dignity, a confidence that we can do the right thing and still turn out all right, then we can give people second chances, we can blame those who deserve blame and not take our injury out on the next person. How do we acquire those characteristics? Practice, practice, practice. There was once an illuminating study done correlating the Transparency International corruption index to UN delegations with unpaid parking tickets – the tickets couldn’t be enforced because of diplomatic immunity. As you might have guessed, the least corrupt nations had almost no tickets and paid them right, while the most corrupt had dozens. Sometimes the small issues help with the big issues – if your habit is to tell the truth, to live your beliefs, the more you do it, the more natural it becomes.
Why do people get to funerals on time? I’ve heard plenty of excuses for starting weddings late: running on Jewish time, or Irish time, or Italian time; maybe the only group “on time” is the WASPs! But even Jews get to funerals on time. Why? It’s important enough, there’s a fear of social disapproval, it’s a serious event, and it’s a sign of respect for both the deceased and their family. Why be good? We are good for ourselves and good for each other. We are good because we think it is important, and we are good because life is imperfect and we have to do as well as possible. We are good because we want to make a good impression, and we are good because it makes us feel better about ourselves. The world may not depend on our behavior, but our ability to forgive others begins with our acceptance of our own flaws. In the end, however, one more reason why we are good may be the most effective – our impact on the future. Immortality is another religious reason to be good – deny yourself in this life to earn life eternal. Even in a secular sense, our good deeds can buy us our own brand of immortality. I can’t tell you how many times children remember their parents to me, at our initial meetings and in public at the funeral and in conversations at the shiva home and for the rest of their lives, as their role models and heroes. Hard work, honesty, generosity, integrity – these are the life lessons offered by people we love. As I give these eulogies, I sometimes think, “What will my family and friends say about me?” And so I strive to be loving, and good, and honest, and patient, and generous because that’s how I can impact the future, that’s what entirely depends on me. If people who loved me remember me for that, emulate me in that, then the world is sustained not just by the living righteous, but also by the legacy of truly good men and women. We always end our congregational memorials with a line from the biblical book of Provberbs (10:7): zekher tsadik l’vrakha – the memory of a righteous person is a blessing.