Thursday, February 11, 2010

What the World Needs Now

If you were to ask different Jews what the world needs now more than anything else, you would probably get many different responses. The more religious will likely answer with something that relates to faith, religious study, or ritual observance. The more secular will likely answer with something having to do with love, college education, or concern for the environment. Although all of the above have their place, what I believe the world needs now more than anything else is good people. What is a good person, or more specifically, what does God want from us? The prophet Michah (Micah 6:8) sums it up concisely in one of the most instructive passages in Tanach:

"It has been told to you, O man, what is good, and what God requires of you: Only to do justly, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God."

Here are the three requirements mentioned above, with some elaboration:

1) Justice - Michah focuses on doing what is right in terms of justice, but the letter of the law alone is not enough; there must also be mercy.

2) Kindness - ahavat chesed means more than being merciful by doing kind deeds; we must train ourselves to love doing acts of kindness.

3) Humility - if we are certain that God is always on our side, we can easily become arrogant and cruel; the lesson is not to look down upon others while striving to live righteously.

Life becomes complex when people confuse what is most important. However, Michah sums up God's demands in three basic attributes. These characteristics are simple, but not simplistic. They're said in such a way that anyone can understand, but not so narrowly as to diminish their meaning. In reality, we are being taught nothing new - these ideas are stressed throughout the Torah and other Jewish holy books. Michah just had the ability to hearken people back to the authentic qualities desired by God.

Notice how the verse states "Only" these three qualities. The prophets consistently affirm that while bein adam lamakom (the relationship between man and God) is extremely significant, it is not as important as bein adam lachaveiro (the relationship between man and other people). In depicting the human ideal, Michah stresses the significance of interpersonal goodness - not faith, keeping kosher, or even observing the Sabbath. This doesn't mean we should drop any of those ritual practices; it simply means we need to get our ethical priorities straight.

We must stop considering peripheral qualities, such as wearing a black hat or keeping a strict level of kashrut, as proof of a Jew's religious commitment. If someone is devoid of justice, kindness, and humility, it is proof in and of itself they aren't truly religious. The irony, of course, is that if we focus on the ideal ethical qualities (how we treat one another), we will merit the opportunity to do the ideal ritual acts (at a rebuilt Beit HaMikdash). It's amazing how a single verse can provide us with unparalleled clarity and purpose. The prophets are Judaism's most direct messengers of God, and their messages are timeless. We would be wise to listen.

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