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Mike Trimyer


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Home From the Rabbi Sermons Why Do Good? - Yom Kippur Evening - 5773/2012
Why Do Good? - Yom Kippur Evening - 5773/2012 PDF Print E-mail

WHY DO GOOD?
SERMON FOR YOM KIPPUR EVENING – 2012/5773


 Perhaps the question that I have been asked most frequently over the last fifty-two years since I entered rabbinical seminary is this: “What do Jews really believe about life-after-death?”  The answer to that query is really pretty simple.  Jews today and Jews in the past have believed a number of things about the hereafter.  We’re rationalistic and skeptical enough to wonder just exactly how one would know what for sure is going to happen.  Having no proof that will support any specific answer, the Jewish tradition has generally allowed us to propose our own varied ideas, with one caveat.  Believe whatever you want, the sages have told us; but while you are debating this question, do the right thing.  Behavior can be observed and verified, so we expect you to act properly.  Speculate all you want about life-after-death, but live as though God is watching you and will ultimately judge you for what you have done on earth.

 That’s the easy part.  But over the decades, I have learned that another question almost always lurks behind the first one.  People are often too kind or too embarrassed to ask it out loud, but once in a while a pious visiting Christian student or parent will forget inhibitions and say this:  “If you don’t believe in heaven or hell, what motivates you to do good?”  Someone who puts the challenge in those terms obviously has a problem shaping behavior except in the light of an ultimate divine reward or punishment; why else would anyone be inspired to choose between a righteous course of action and its opposite?

 As I move forward with this series of four High Holyday sermons, all connected by the questioning word “why?” this inquiry seems important enough to share some thoughts with you. 

 I’ve never taken a poll, scientific or otherwise, in a Jewish congregation.  But what I do know about you and me is that very few of us would assent to the proposition that fear of God’s wrath or hope for God’s approval after our deaths is the true motivator for our behavior.  If there is one theological axiom upon which I would place a bet, it is that the afterlife is not the reason we act in ethical and moral ways.  (After tonight’s sermon, you can disabuse me of this assumption if you wish, and I’ll report back tomorrow.  But I will be very surprised if more than a handful of you tell me that I’ve misunderstood who we are.)

 So, if we don’t decide on how we are to behave based on what will or will not happen to us after we die, what does motivate us?   I can suggest a few ideas for your consideration.

 Quite a few of us might answer very simply: “We do what is right because it is obviously the right thing to do.  Nothing more and nothing less.”  What an admirable and straight-forward perspective.   Who could argue with this tautology?  “Right is right and wrong is wrong, and I’m going to take my stand on one side of the equation.  Over and out.”

 Unfortunately, when we start to argue the proposition with ourselves, we run up against a tougher question.  “How do you know what is right?”

 The most existential answer is that what is right feels good to me.  We might almost claim that there is a rightness gene or a rightness instinct built into the personality of human beings.  Now, there is no evidence that this kind of knowledge of right and wrong is included in the fundamental make-up of what it means to be a human person.  No scientist has ever found such a source.  To the contrary, at least one account, the biblical story of Adam and Eve, tells us that people were created morally and ethically neutral and that they had to learn the difference between good and bad in the Garden of Eden.  A second concern that you might raise concerning a genetic or instinctual sense of right and wrong is that there are some people who apparently have it and some other who don’t.  But the fruits of this tree do not seem consistent through the generations of a family.  Parents may be wonderful people, but one or more of their offspring may turn out to be awful – or vice-versa.  It’s pretty hard to make sense of how the idea of a gene or an instinct for good and bad really operates.  Plus, of course, if the difference between individuals can be reduced to a biological cause, it’s awfully difficult to assign responsibility for actions when they are so pre-determined.   Some of us are old enough to remember Flip Wilson’s character, Geraldine, from the TV show, ”That Was The Week That Was.”  Whenever she did something wrong, she always exclaimed” “The devil made me do it.”  The notion of assigning responsibility for our actions to the devil or to fate or destiny or genes or instinct violates the basic Jewish idea that that we take the blame for the bad things we do and claim credit for the good; it eliminates any possibility that we are ethically accountable and eviscerates the very essence of what makes us human beings. 
 
Some people will tell you that they learned what to do from their parents and other older people – grandparents, friends, teachers, clergy and so on.  This makes more sense to many of us, but then we might push the question back in time: where did they get their ideas of fairness and justice and equity?  Our elders indubitably influence us in the directions our lives will take, but I suspect there is more.  That more can be summarized in one word: tradition.  Traditions are transmitted in a variety of ways: through family, through community, through books and movies and so on.  But the tradition of Jewish ethics and morality comes down to us through a three thousand-year record of history and the documents that Jews preserved during those years.  We begin with the Bible in all its richness, with the laws of the Torah and the ethical and moral strictures of Israel’s prophets.  We have read these words in every synagogue in every place where Jews have lived, in each and every year of our people’s existence.  We have listened to these words over and over again, so frequently that their messages have sunk into our collective consciousness.   Tomorrow morning, we shall hear again the words of Deuteronomy (30:15ff) – “See, I have set before you this day life and good, or death and evil.  I command you this day to love the Lord, to walk in His ways and to keep the commandments, laws and teachings of your God, that you may live and increase….”  And then, almost immediately, we turn to the prophet Isaiah (58) and read together the mandate he spoke in the name of God:   “Is not this the fast I look for: to unlock the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free and to break every cruel chain?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and to bring the homeless poor into your house?  When you see the naked to clothe them and never to hide yourself from your own kin?”
 
We learn from repeating the superlatively ethical demands of the Bible, from working to apply them to real-life situations, and we demand of ourselves nothing less than compliance with the most exalted standards that human beings can ever have imagined.  Do we fall short of this goal?  All the time.  But we strive to make the historical legacy of righteousness and decency a part of our daily existence.  We learn our ethics and our morality in large part because, consciously or unconsciously, we become aware of what is the right thing to do as a Jew because we are involved with institutions, like the synagogue, and with people, like those sitting on either side of you, who are equally enmeshed in the project of making this a better world by doing the right thing.  

 Speaking of tikkun olam, of fixing our broken, often distressing world, we learn something about doing the right thing from our history as Jews.  All-too-often, our lot as a minority people has not been comfortable and easy.  Now, here in America, we find ourselves for almost the first time in modern Jewish life in conditions of security and acceptance.   We still do not forget the lessons of the past and how unpleasant, even terrifying, it must have been to live in many of the places from which we stemmed.   Over the last few centuries, we have acquired a finely-honed sense of righteous indignation about the injustices and brutalities of society, whether directed at us or at others who now occupy the role we once filled.   From our discontent rises the power of creative dissatisfaction, the insistence that we do not agree with the world in which we presently live and the drive that we must be part of a solution to social and personal dysfunction, that our role in the world’s economy is to strive to fix problems rather than to perpetuate them.  This impulse has disproportionately led us to enter professions that seek to ameliorate the ills we find all around us – to become doctors who heal the sick, lawyers who insist on an objective rule of law, counselors who support the distressed, educators who teach, business men and women who seek profit so that they will be able to distribute some of their gains for the good of others.  Our history and our texts have taught us that our mission is to be a light to the nations of the world – a light that shines its beam not on what already is, but that focuses its glare on the vision of a world that could be.

 Over three thousand years ago, so Jewish history teaches us, Moses and the newly-freed slaves stood at Mount Sinai.  There, they entered into a covenant with God.  In exchange for the gift of Torah, guidance for how they might wend their way through this world of choices suddenly open to them, they promised that they would strive to do God’s will.  Kol asher dibair Adonai na’aseh.”all that God ha said to us, we will do,” they affirmed.  And they understood that this commitment was not just for themselves, but for all future generations of their descendants, for all Jews to come until the goal of a society brought as close to perfection as humans can achieve is reached.  My friends, that end-point is still far away.  But the promise persists, and you and I are bound by its terms.  We reaffirmed that commitment when we became Bar or Bat Mitzvah and when we stood before the ark of that same covenant at Confirmation and now, when we come before God as a holy community of Jews who try to be faithful to that old,  but ever-new promise.  In the end result, we do the right thing because that is what we promised God we would do, and we are determined to live up to the oath that we affirmed on Sinai and every day of our Jewish lives since then.
 
So, do I know what will happen to me or you after we die?  I have hope that there is some kind of eternal life, but I am not sure.  I am, however, certain of one thing: I shall continue to try to do the right thing while I have the breath of life within me.  If there is a life after death, then I trust that my righteous conduct on earth will be sufficiently pleasing to the Almighty that I shall merit inclusion in the eternal people.  And if there is not, then I won’t know the difference, but I shall still have had the satisfaction of having lived my life at the highest standard I know and having tried to fulfill my commitment to my God.  This is my faith; it’s quite enough of an answer for me.
       
AMEN

 

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