Thursday, June 2, 2011

In the Service of Others

Shortly before his death in 1790, Benjamin Franklin wrote a letter to Ezra Stiles, president of Yale University. Stiles had asked this founding father of the United States about his personal views on religion. Franklin graciously responded:

"Here is my Creed: I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That He governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable Service we can render to him, is doing Good to his other Children. That the Soul of Man is immortal, and will be treated with Justice in another life respecting its Conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental Principles of all sound Religion, and I regard them as you do, in whatever Sect I meet with them."

The origin of these ideas date back to Abraham, the original monotheist, as well as Hillel and Rabbi Akiva, who elucidated that the primary principle of the Torah is to be good to other people. His words form the essence of what we are on earth to do. Namely, to act decently toward one another. Although Benjamin Franklin was not Jewish, the guiding principles of his life were rooted in Jewish wisdom. Similarly, the founding of the United States is often described as Judeo-Christian. While there is no such thing as Judeo-Christian theology (e.g. Jews don't believe in the divinity of human beings and Christians don't keep kosher), there is such a thing as Judeo-Christian values (i.e. Jewish ideas that have been spread predominately by Christians).

Ironically, Franklin's image is used on the one hundred-dollar bill and often symbolizes our materialistic culture. However, if people were to more closely follow Franklin's creed, there would be far less greed. While there's nothing wrong with pursuing a good economic life (as long as it's done ethically), it can easily be taken to an extreme and destroy us. This is one of the difficult lessons the world in general, and America in particular, is learning during the current economic crisis. We were not created solely to amass wealth; we are here to emulate God's characteristics of bestowal. And each person according to their abilities can do so.

Earlier this week, America celebrated Memorial Day, and Israel recently observed Yom Hazikaron. The service of the men and women in the American and Israeli armed forces has helped spread freedom to millions of people, Jew and non-Jew alike. Those who put their lives on the line - and especially those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice - represent the epitome of service to others. I am humbled to know that some readers of this blog are actively serving overseas or have served in the American or Israeli military. Whether fellow Jews or fellow Americans (or both), thank you for your service.

It's truly inspirational to know people whose lifestyle is modeled to help others, from the soldier abroad to the caring neighbor at home. While it's only human to think of ourselves first, self-centeredness will not lead to a fulfilling life. There's a reason why it feels good to come through for someone else - because that's what God wants from us. At the very least, we must not hurt one another. And at best, we must try to actively help each other. As Albert Einstein put it: "Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile."


  1. Today, the military (IDF included) are often "worshiped" as status symbols such as the might and power of a country, unfortunately.

    To do justice, you have to include those in the medical field, the EMTs, Hatzalah, community Mishmar and also the good mothers and fathers who give of themselves to their children unconditionally, the Rabbis who gave their time to their community more than to their families, the unspoken volunteers, ordinary citizens who put their lives on the line during a terrorist attack and the list goes on and on.

    Just like there is a natural food chain in our ecosystem, there is a natural "service of others" chain in our chesed ecosystem. Note that the military serves with a paycheck + huge perks in exchange for their lives. Parents, volunteers, ordinary citizens and some Rabbis & Rebbetzins go beyond their call of duty without being blinded by money. These are the real heros, IMHO.

  2. The reason I focused on the military was because of the recent memorial days. In previous posts, I've focused on some of the other people you mentioned. Still, without someone standing on the front lines, the freedom to raise a family, work in the medical field or do just about anything else wouldn't exist.

    But your point is well-taken; they all deserve recognition.