Thursday, October 27, 2011

What is Goodness?


Given that this blog focuses on increasing goodness between Jews, perhaps some clarity on goodness is warranted. Its importance is stressed throughout many of my posts, but there's usually not much elaboration. So what exactly is goodness? Obviously, a smile, kind word or helping hand would fall under this category. However, it's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that anything that makes us feel good is goodness. Therefore, there has to be a more objective definition from a more reliable source.

People of different political ideologies and religious backgrounds have come up with very different ways of defining what is good. On the one hand, there are secular individuals who claim that goodness is about having certain political positions or protecting the environment. On the other hand, there are religious individuals who claim that goodness is about ritual observance or sexual purity. As a result, it's easy to be confused as to what goodness actually is. Yet, there is a very simple explanation offered by God via the prophet Micah:

"It has been told to you, O man, what is good, and what God requires of you: only to act justly, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God." (Micah 6:8)

Here are the three characteristics mentioned in the verse, with some elaboration:

Justice - do what is right, regardless of whether it happens to benefit your "team"; we must be ethical people who judge behavior instead of socioeconomic status, political affiliation or level of religiosity.

Kindness - the Hebrew term used here is ahavat chesed, which means more than being merciful by doing kind deeds; we should train ourselves to love doing acts of kindness.

Humility - if we are certain that God is always on our side, it's easy to become arrogant and cruel; it's important not to look down upon others while striving to live righteously.

Notice that the common denominator among all of these attributes is how we treat other people. God is primarily concerned with interpersonal decency and character development. Also notice how the verse states "only" these three qualities. The prophets consistently affirm that while Bein Adam La'Makom (the relationship between man and God) is extremely significant, it is not as important as Bein Adam La'Chaveiro (the relationship between man and other people). Unfortunately, too many people haven't yet made God's top priority their top priority.

A good example of someone who embodied God's definition of goodness is Rabbi Aryeh Levin. Confidants of Rabbi Levin have explained that he viewed life's main purpose as helping others. If a few days passed without an opportunity to give someone advice, charity or just a kind word, he started to wonder if his existence on earth was no longer needed. Furthermore, Rabbi Levin never felt that the people he helped owed him anything. In fact, he felt indebted to them. Thus, he treated everyone fairly and mercifully without ever boasting about it.

So there you have it. Although fulfilling God-based goodness can be difficult, understanding what it entails is rather simple: act justly, love kindness and remain humble. If we all followed these three basic qualities, the world would be a better place.

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