Tag Archives: right

Separating Good from God

returning-the-torahThe campaign of the Greeks was aimed to “make them forget Your Torah and violate the decrees of Your will” (Sidur p. 59); as the Midrash (Bereishit Raba 16) puts it, (the Greeks demanded) “Write…that you have no share in the G-d of Israel.” It was a war against G-d. “Let them study Torah,” the Greeks implied. “Let them practice the justice-mitzvot and the ‘testimonial’ observances. But they must not mention that the Torah is G-d’s Torah and the mitzvot are the decrees of His will. Torah and mitzvot must be severed from G-dliness.”

“Today’s Day”
Thursday, Tevet 2, Seventh Day of Chanuka, 5703
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan

Why should any religion get the credit for people doing good, but not get the credit for people doing bad?

I think it should be consistent either way, don’t you? Either the church gets all the credit or none of it. You can’t just give it the good and ignore the bad.

-comment from NotAScientist
on my blog post
When Christians Do Good

Typically, one of the criticisms non-religious people level against Christians and other people of faith is that we need some sort of excuse to do the right thing. We use our faith and our religion as an external motivator to do good when, as human beings, we should just know how to do good and do the right thing because it’s the right thing.

This gets muddied up further when definitions about what “right” happens to be differ between religious and non-religious populations and certain social priorities and “causes” become involved. Then too, the matter of the “supernatural” vs. the “rational” is also injected into the argument, with rational, scientific atheism and secular humanism weighing in on the side of “thinking” as opposed to “believing”.

In doing a little research into “atheist advertising” for this blog post, I found a number of clever slogans that atheists use to promote their particular viewpoint. One was on the side of a New York City bus and read…

“You don’t have to believe in God to be a moral or ethical person”

The ad then provided the URL to the New York City Atheists website (see the story at The New York Times for details).

But that takes us back to the “Today’s Day” quote at the top of this blog post and interestingly enough, Chanukah.

As you’re reading this, Chanukah has just ended (at sundown Sunday night) but the lessons it teaches us are still fresh in my mind. Why would the Greeks be content to continue to allow the Jews to perform the Torah mitzvot and to do justice, as long as they divorced those moral and ethical deeds and the Torah itself from the God of Israel? If you donate food to your local food bank because you believe that helping others is the right thing to do, and I perform the same act in response to the will of God, what difference does it make? Hungry people are still fed either way, right?

atheist_christmas_adWell yes, hungry people are still fed either way. Someone can enjoy a donated meal without wondering about the motivation of the person who provided it. Their belly will be just as full and they can feel just as grateful to the person who helped them out. I can understand why an atheist would make such a statement, but why would the ancient Greeks, who had no end of gods of their own, want to say something like that about the Jews? Why separate the good deed from the ultimate author of the good deed, God?

Pinchas arose and wrought judgment, and so the plague was checked.

Psalms 106:30

The word tefillah, or “prayer,” has its origin in the word pallel, which means “to seek justice.” Prayer should therefore be an activity whereby one seeks justice. The first recorded prayer in Jewish history is that of the Patriarch Abraham. He sought justice for the people of Sodom and pleaded with God to spare them (Genesis 18:23-33). Thus, when we pray, whether for ourselves or for others, it should be with the understanding that we are seeking justice.

How, then, can we ask of God to grant our various requests? Are we deserving of this? Do we deserve them? Are they within the realm of justice?

Two answers come to mind. If, as part of our prayers, we admit the wrongs we have done, sincerely regret them, and commit ourselves not to repeat them, then we may indeed be deserving. We therefore do not make our requests on the basis of what we are, but on the basis of what we will be. Second, if we extend ourselves by forgiving people who have offended us and acting with kindness toward them, then God’s acting accordingly toward us can in itself be considered justice.

Thus, teshuvah (the process of regret and return) and gemilas chasadim (acts of kindness) are the foundations of prayer.

Today I shall…

try to do teshuvah, and to act toward others in a way that I wish God to act toward me.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Tevet 1”

I don’t have some wise commentary or a learned sage to draw from to answer the question I posed above, but there seems to be one difference between the atheist’s motivations and the reason a person of faith does good: the definer and creator of good.

If man is the final arbitrator of what is good and evil, then good and evil changes over time, changes between nations and cultures, and changes from one individual to the next. What I may consider good, another person may see as evil. What I can justify within my own conscience may be considered tremendously heinous within another’s moral structure.

But God is God. He does not change and thus what is good does not change.

And what is good?

And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.”

Mark 10:18 (ESV)

OK, it’s not that simple. I’ve mentioned before that religion and how we understand God evolves over time. Besides that, even just within Christianity, various denominations and even individuals who go to the same church can differ on a number of political and social issues in terms of what is “good” and “evil.” Should you pray for the well-being of President Obama or pray against his health and safety? You may believe the answer to that question is clear, but I promise you that no matter what your answer may be, there is a believer out there who has the opposite answer, and yet both of you believe you are in the right because of God and the Bible.

But even though we have that monkey wrench in the machine, I still believe it is better to seek out God in matters of right and wrong than to universally rely on our own judgment and feelings. I’ve been writing recently about the Sandy Hook school shootings and it is only the most recent of the many debates you will find on how to address violence in our society. What is the right thing to do? What is the ethical and moral thing to do in response to the death of 26 people, including 20 small children?

symmes_chapel_churchI don’t know.

I do know that even those of us who turn to the God of the Bible for our strength and our hope don’t always agree on the answer. How much more must a secular world with only the standard of public opinion dispute each other, disagree, and contend?

I don’t know the answer. But I am thankful that when I have to ask the question, I don’t have to ask another human being who is just as hurt, sorrowful, and angry as I am.

If my sense of right and wrong became detached from God, even if my basic behavior and my concept of what is good did not change, I would be at the mercy of the opinion of whatever group of people I chose to listen to or worse, I would have to depend upon the voice of my own personal thoughts and feelings.

I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

Psalm 121:1-2 (ESV)

It was God who took a family and made them a people and a nation too numerous to count. If the Greeks had succeeded and caused the Jews to detach the Torah from God, Israel too would become detached and ultimately lost. It is God who redeems the soul of every living person and from whose hand we receive what each of us needs at its proper time. Without God, we too would be lost.

The Resolute and Supple Reed

“Who is wise? One who learns from every person.”
-Ben Zoma, Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers 4:1)

Throughout the existence of the Jewish people, we have long been enamored with intelligence. Just look at the disproportionate amount of Jews who have been awarded the Nobel Prize. However, intelligence by itself is not a supreme value; it can be used for either good or evil. Thus, the Talmud tells us, “The purpose of wisdom is to bring about repentance and good deeds” (Berachot 17a). In other words, if we’re not using our minds to try to become better people, our intelligence really doesn’t amount to much at all. Furthermore, Ben Zoma’s excerpt from Pirkei Avot alludes to the fact that while a person’s intellectual capacity is innately limited, wisdom can be attained by anyone. A wise person is not someone who graduated first in their class, but rather someone who is constantly trying to learn.

“Who is Wise”
Lev Echad blog

I didn’t create this “morning meditation” blog to simply spew out answers but rather to ask hard questions. I don’t pretend to have some special insight into God or religion or faith. I only have my experience as I continue and grow in my relationship with God. I chronicle the developments of that relationship here in a variety of forms, including commentary on the Bible and occasionally reviews of related publications. I’m not really here to teach but to learn, and I learn from every person who talks to me in this blog. I think that’s how we all learn…by communicating.

It’s not always easy. As I’m sure you’ve discovered by participating in or just reading the comments on this blog, a lot of disagreement and sometimes heated debate happens. Occasionally, tempers flare, though I do my best to try and contain the “emotionalism” of our debates. The goal, as I see it, is not to try to prove who is right and who is wrong, but to pursue realization and truth. Truth, as I’ve said before, is not the same as fact, and thus truth can take on more than one form.

As Asher said in the quote I posted above, “A wise person is not someone who graduated first in their class, but rather someone who is constantly trying to learn.” He also said this:

Thus, the Talmud tells us, “The purpose of wisdom is to bring about repentance and good deeds” (Berachot 17a). In other words, if we’re not using our minds to try to become better people, our intelligence really doesn’t amount to much at all.

The goal Asher describes is similar to mine. The point of being intelligent isn’t to “be right” but to “bring about repentance and good deeds.” We’re supposed to study and explore and debate and discuss, not to exalt ourselves and to prove we’re the “smarter guy,” but to become better people through a greater understanding of our relationship with God. From a Jewish point of view, that also involves doing and not just thinking or saying, so “good deeds” are a vital part of that process as is repentance of our sins before man and God.

Does that mean a truly wise person is always a doormat who never takes a strong stand on a moral principle? Not at all.

On today’s daf we find that the Beis HaMikdash was purposely destroyed either before or after Shemittah, since bad things happen during times that are already difficult.

Keeping Shemittah in Israel was a big conflict not too long ago. Hardly anyone was doing it—even otherwise religious farmers—and those who were willing were often intimidated by their peers. The Chazon Ish, zt”l, wrote a beautiful letter of encouragement to those farmers who were willing to consider sacrificing what appeared to be their advantage in order to keep the letter of the law.

“I am a farmer who makes his living through the work of my hands. It is now almost Shemittah and a riveting thought has gotten into my head: I want to keep the laws of Shemittah with courage and boldness. I am alone and unaided, a joke to all of my neighbors. ‘How could it be?’ they asked when I began. ‘You won’t plant and you won’t harvest? You can’t fight against reality!’

“But my chutzpah stood me well and despite the indisputable fact that anyone with intelligence knows that it is physically impossible to keep these halachos unless one has a silo filled with grain for three years—since Shemittah is obviously impossible to fulfill in our times without enough grain before the seventh year. Now isn’t like it used to be, they say; you cannot rely on miracles. Yet the year is already halfway over and it looks like one can keep Shemittah after all. I planted everything before Rosh Hashannah, while it was still the sixth year, and during the seventh year I have not worked my field. I am careful to treat the produce which overlaps from the sixth year to the seventh with holiness and I hope to make peace with reality—or that reality should mete out what is good for me.

“My neighbors mock me—yet the weather mocks them. It works out to be good for one who planted early, but not for their crops planted during Shemittah. Only my early-planted crops have survived!”

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“A Time of Challenge”
Arachin 12

It seems obvious that if we are in the right in an argument or dispute, we should stand our ground, even against overwhelming odds, including that of “popular public opinion.” The question is, how can you know that you are always right? If you are a reasonable person and honest with yourself, you’ll have to admit that you can never be “always right”. That’s where learning from others comes in. Even a genius cannot know everything if that genius is in isolation. Only by discourse with the rest of the world, including a world that is fundamentally different from you, can real learning ever take place. The trick is to differentiate between being resolute in your principles and being mule-headed stubborn, even in the face of great evidence that discounts the validity of your arguments.

OK, I say that with the understanding that most people don’t change once they’ve made up their minds. But if change were impossible, then no one would come to realize that the God of Abraham is the Maker of the Universe. If we could not humble ourselves and admit that we were wrong, no one would come to faith in the Jewish Messiah, our Lord, Savior, and King.

But our greatest adversary doesn’t exist outside of us in some other group or church or synagogue or even in the supernatural realm. Our greatest enemy is who we are.

There are times you must be like a reed in the wind. And there are times you must face it like an iron wall.

When it comes to matters that lie at the surface, then “I hold like this” and “my opinion is like this” stand in the way of harmony and peace. Every such “I” is the very root and source of evil.

But when it comes to matters that touch your essence and core, the purpose for which you were placed in this world, then you must be an iron wall. Then you must say, “On this, I cannot budge.”

Liberated from its thick shell of ego, empowered and emboldened, the essential self breaks through the concrete, blossoms and flourishes.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“I Versus I”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

Although “iron sharpens iron” (Proverbs 27:17), we must not “dull” ourselves by always seeking resistance. To “sharpen” a human being requires debate, disagreement, and discourse, and then an experience of contrition before God to help us understand when it is time to stand our ground like an iron wall, and when it is time to be supple like the reed before the wind.

In the midst of our human storms, we must never forget that what matters most is to seek His Face.

My heart, O God, is steadfast;
I will sing and make music with all my soul.
Awake, harp and lyre!
I will awaken the dawn.
I will praise you, LORD, among the nations;
I will sing of you among the peoples. –Psalm 108:1-3