Erev Yom Kippur 5782
A couple of years ago I was invited to speak at a local church between their two services on a Sunday morning. Longtime social action partners of ours, they were running a series on what it means to live a Good Life, and asked me to talk about the Jewish idea of what that meant. Perhaps assuming a lecture or a powerpoint presentation, I instead chose to do what rabbis have always done: I brought texts in, gave a quick introduction, paired them off into chevruta, study groups, and had this group of devout church goers studying Talmud. It was a really neat experience, and a far better way to communicate both our values as a people but also how we get to those values, than some dry lecture ever could.
I’ve been thinking a great deal about that question, and about what it means to live a good life. I struggled with the question then as well: what does that even mean? I have heard for years people say to me, as if they and I are in on a joke, “Rabbi, aren’t all the teachings of Judaism and the Torah just another way of saying, ‘be a good person?’, as if we could turn several thousand years of experiences and teachings into the ethical equivalent of a smoothie. And similarly, I have heard people say, sometimes in moments of joy and wistfulness, sometimes in moments of exasperation or even grief as to their experience, “rabbi, I’m a good person’. As Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year begins, this question challenges us: what does it mean to do good, or to live a good life? Are they related to each other? Can you live a good life without being good? And what is ‘good’?
Our text for Yom Kippur raises this issue up for us, and seems to suggest that good is self-evident, and that doing good and living a good life are intimately intertwined: “See I have set before you this day life and good, or death and evil.” The medieval commentaries further emphasize this: “that the one is dependent upon the other: if you do good, behold, there is life for you, and if you do evil, behold, there is death for you. Many of us, myself included, would find that idea challenging, to say the least. Many of us have looked at our lot and said in response to both success and failure, “I don’t deserve this”, either wondering in awe as to our success despite our worst impulses, or grieving profoundly despite our best efforts. Perhaps, this is meant to be a metaphor, as Rabbi Ira Stone understands it; that it isn’t so much an actual reward or punishment but a state of being, that doing good and accepting responsibility for one another’s well-being serves as a balm, of sorts, that doing good helps us feel good. But even Rabbi Stone acknowledges that this is problematic: that whatever acts we perform, even if they are meager, might give us such a feeling of reward that we might feel justified in other, less savory actions, or simply abandon our efforts before we see them all the way through: “the fact that doing so little can make us feel good may remove the incentive for us to do even more.”
The truth is, for our tradition, there is no such thing as a good person. The word for good, ‘tov’, used over and over again, especially in the creation story, describing each day, implies a sense of completion, or wholeness; perfection. To say that we are good—tov—is to suggest that we are practically perfect. Which would mean we need no improvement, never need to apologize for our choices, that we are always correct. Come on. None of us are Mary Poppins, and deep down inside, we recognize the egotism surrounding such an idea. Even if we don’t want to admit it in the moment, all of us commit offenses, each of us has much to learn, and sometimes, despite our best efforts, we err again and again. We are glorious works in progress, constantly trying to refine ourselves and, in each moment, recognize the good, the choice that is best, that will lead us toward the Good that we aspire to.
There’s a term for this in our tradition; hakarat hatov. What’s interesting is, while this is literally translated as ‘recognizing the good’, it is usually used to mean gratitude. Rabbi Alan Morinis writes, “The Hebrew term for gratitude is hakarat hatov, which means, literally, ‘recognizing the good.’ The good is already there. Practicing gratitude means being fully aware of the good that is already yours.”
Is it too cliché to say that living a good life, and being good, is to stand in a posture of gratitude? That in fact, the rewards and punishments that our Torah text and our liturgy at the High Holidays are really just describing the state of being when our eyes are truly open to what we have in this world? Perhaps, but sometimes things are cliché because they are true. And we have all experienced this truth: those moments in our lives when we are grateful are moments when we see the good in what we do, the people around us, and who we are. We see that our choices matter, and our presence makes a difference in the lives of others. And when we lose that sense of gratitude, those are the moments of cynicism and nihilism or depression in our lives, as if everything were a waste of time or energy. But if we can make those moments intentional, rather than incidental; if we can strive to stand in a posture of gratitude, then we might fulfill the words of that Torah text, and reach toward the Good. As Eric Gurvis writes in The Mussar Torah Commentary: “read through the lense of hakarat hatov, seeing the good that is present, seeing our strengths even in the midst of our struggles and imperfections…[we] can summon the courage and strength, not to mention the will, to reach higher, toward the good and the holy.”
That doesn’t mean we won’t make mistakes, even well-intentioned ones. That doesn’t mean we won’t succumb to moments of cynicism or self-righteousness, thinking ourselves either beyond hope or impervious to criticism. Poet Marianne Williamson reminds us that our deepest fear, after all, is that we are inadequate, and that we are powerful beyond measure. We experience setbacks and trauma, we remain works-in-progress. But when we turn the focus away from ourselves and toward the blessings in our lives, appreciate our skills and gifts as tools to use to serve others, and recognize the good even in our moments of darkness or failure, then we truly can fulfill our text, to choose the good for ourselves and each other.
Last fall my son celebrated his bar mitzvah. It was a dark time for all of us as a country, and he led the service with a mask on to an almost empty sanctuary, broadcast on YouTube. He talked about creation, and recounted a text from the Talmud: that perhaps, it would have been better if humanity hadn’t existed, but since we are here, let us use our gifts and talents for good. As dark as that moment was for us as a country, as far as that moment was from what we had hoped for, I cherish that moment in our family’s life and the wisdom my son shared that day. May we recognize the good, express our gratitude for it, and in so doing, choose to make it real for one another. Amen.