Everything is easier than doing good


Some thoughts for Rosh Hashanah:

If we took a vote on what trait we human beings most value, goodness would undoubtedly win. Certainly goodness is the trait that we most want everyone else to possess.

But if we say we value goodness above everything else — and surely Judaism does — why aren’t there more good people?

A big reason is that it is easier to value other things — including, and especially, positive things — more than goodness. So it’s much easier to be just about anything rather than good.

It’s easier to be religious than to be good.

The history of all religions is replete with examples of individuals who seem religious, yet who are not good and are sometimes downright evil. The most obvious examples today are found within Islam. But Judaism, Christianity and all other religions have provided examples. It was mean-spirited observant Jews (observant of laws between man and God) whom the Prophets most severely criticized. God doesn’t want your ritual observances, Isaiah said in God’s name, if you don’t treat people properly. And too much of European Christian history produced people who valued faith over goodness.

It’s easier to be progressive than to be good.

Just as it is easier to be religious than to be good, it is easier to hold progressive positions than to be good. Too many religious people have equated religious piety with goodness, and too many believers in today’s dominant religion, progressivism, equate left-wing positions with goodness. I saw this as a graduate student in the 1970s, when the most progressive students were so often personally mean and dishonest. They seemed to believe that protesting against war and racism defined the good human being — so how they treated actual people didn’t really matter. Defining goodness as having progressive social positions has helped produce a lot of mean-spirited and narcissistic individuals with the “right” social positions.

It’s easier to be brilliant (and successful) than to be good.

Ask your children — whether they are 5 or 45 — what they think you most want them to be: happy, good, successful or smart.

Parents have told me for decades how surprised they were that their children did not answer “good.” One reason is that so many parents have stressed brilliance (and the success that brilliance should lead to) over goodness. Thus, many parents brag about their child’s brilliance rather than about their goodness. How closely do parents monitor their children’s character as compared to how closely they monitor their children’s grades?

Brilliance is probably the most overrated human attribute. And there is absolutely no connection between it and goodness. 

It’s easier to care about the earth than to be good.

Everyone who cares about the next generation of human beings cares about the earth. But we live at a time when many care about the earth more than they care about human beings. That is why, for example, the environmentalist movement in the West persisted in banning DDT, despite the fact that not using DDT to destroy the Anopheles mosquito has resulted in millions of Africans dying of malaria.

Similarly, it is a lot easier to fight carbon emissions than to fight evil.

It’s easier to love animals than to love people.

The secular West has produced many people who love animals more than human beings. Ask people who love their pet if they would first try to save a beloved dog or cat that was drowning or a human being they did not know who was also drowning. If my asking this question for over 30 years is any indication, a significant percentage would answer that they would first try to save their dog or cat. Why? Because, they say, they love their pet and they don’t love the stranger.

Contrary to what is widely believed, love of animals does not translate into love of people. While those who are cruel to animals will likely be cruel to people, the converse is not true. Love of animals has little to do with, and can often substitute for, love of people. 

It’s easier to love humanity than to love your neighbor.

The greatest moral teaching of the Torah is, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” not “Love humanity [or “all people”] as yourself.” Why? Because it’s easy to love humanity; it’s much tougher to love our neighbor.

It’s easier to be intellectual and cultured than to be good.

The most cultured nation in the world created the Holocaust. The nation that produced Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Schumann and Wagner also produced the Nazis and Auschwitz. For those of us whose lives have been immeasurably enriched by the art and culture produced by Germans, that is a sobering fact.

It’s easier to intend to do good than to do good.

It is a truism that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Nearly all the evils of the 20th century, the bloodiest century in history, were committed not by sadists, but by people with good intentions.

That is why, when it comes to how we treat our fellow human beings, only our behavior — not our intention, and not how much we feel for others — matters. 

The primacy of behavior over feelings may well be Judaism’s greatest message. 

A happy and healthy new year to all my readers.


Dennis Prager will once again be conducting High Holy Day services in Los Angeles. For more information, visit www.pragerhighholidays.net

Shalom Auslander is my failure


A review of Shalom Auslander’s new memoir caught my eye — was this author the curly-haired boy who had been my ninth-grade student at Yeshiva University High

School?

Reading the review confirmed, first, that it was the same person, though now the curls had given way to a contemporary buzz cut, and second, that his writing was to Noah Feldman, another controversial former yeshiva student, what Junior Classics are to Shakespeare.

Then I saw his eponymous Web site, and realized that my initial estimate had been over generous. Self-promotion, biblical inaccuracies, shock value, uber alles. I have no admiration for what my former high school student has done. I can sympathize with his pain growing up, but abuse doesn’t produce pseudo-philosophy of this caliber. Neither does a school.

If Feldman wants acceptance, Auslander wants a book tour and a cheeseburger without the guilt. But shorn of the elaborate gyrations that don’t quite succeed in justifying a lifestyle of pot, pork and pater-bashing, Auslander has hit on a point that troubles every thinking religious person.

It’s a lot easier to believe in an omnipotent and omniscient God than a benevolent one. Bad things do happen to good people — all the time — and the believer spends a great deal of spiritual energy putting aside, and keeping aside, creeping doubts in God’s goodness. When I let it, my mind wanders to my first trip to Israel in 1983, when I was accompanied by my 22-year-old sister, and seriously dated a former classmate from Ramaz. A dozen years later, both women would be dead from cancer, and I would be a rabbi, teaching people that there is a good God and a reason for everything. They would forever be connected in my memory to Effi Chovers, my sister’s classmate at Ramaz, who was killed in 1982, in Operation Peace for the Galilee. But God has His reasons.

In my pastoral work, the instances of suffering are multiplied. A couple, long infertile, finally pregnant, struck with a miscarriage; a congregant’s child afflicted with illness; a wrecked marriage leaving both partners savaged — sometimes the emotional effect feels cumulative, and it is very tempting to point an accusing finger upward. I can walk into a wedding, and feel tears fill my eyes from the knowledge of the silent sorrow of so many families around me. And, of course, looming above my life is the spectre of the Holocaust, in which my father’s whole family perished, and whose icy grip accompanied me growing up.

Part of me wonders: Am I blinded by self-interest to take up the cause of God simply because He is not currently aiming his bow at me? Am I dishonest to preach belief in a good God, when so many around me are suffering? When I help comfort a mourner or ease the pain of another human being, am I God’s partner as I preach, and as I dearly want to believe, or am I cleaning up after Him, saving His creatures from His wrath?

But I am not the first to struggle with these questions. From Abraham to Aher, Jeremiah to Job, the Aish Kodesh to Elie Wiesel, those who have seen and understood more than I, have struggled to keep love in their lexicon. And one of the least-answerable post-Holocaust questions is how so many survivors succeeded in rebuilding not only their lives but their faith. My father (z”l) was one such survivor, but his formula was ineffable, nontransferable, to be emulated, but never duplicated, even by a son. And yet I remember the hours he spent, staring out our apartment window, murmuring niggunim, laden with unshed tears. I never asked him about the inner struggles of those moments. I didn’t have to.

In this area, like dieting, you can only adopt what works for you. For Sherlock Holmes it was the aroma of the rose, wholly unnecessary from an evolutionary point of view, that “proved” the existence of a benevolent God. For others it is a personal experience of miraculous salvation. For me it was a chocolate cake.

It was 1985, and I was back in Israel, at a yeshiva. It was my birthday, and I was unutterably lonely. My mother’s care package, having arrived early, was long-since dismembered, devoured and forgotten. It was my first birthday away from home, and nobody remembered. In my mind, I played the maudlin and the miserable to the hilt. I decided to visit married friends in a nearby neighborhood. Their door was open, but no one was home. On the table stood a homemade cake and a note — “Sorry we couldn’t be here in person. Happy Birthday and many happy returns.” That cake did more than sate my sweet tooth. People like that convince me that God is good.

So, too, does the rabbi whom I call upon to answer questions posed to me that I can’t handle myself. He has yet to tell me how inane my queries really are, or that if I cracked open a Shulchan Aruch, I could find the answers myself. And the people of my community who rallied around us when my wife was on bed rest during a difficult pregnancy, or when I sat shiva. From people like these, I extrapolate to God.

This doesn’t answer my questions. It doesn’t staunch my tears. I don’t sleep better. I don’t justify terrible things when they happen to others, and I don’t know why they don’t happen to me. But I know that just as surely as there is inexplicable evil in the world, there is inexplicable good, as well. It’s something to put on the other side of the scale, something to attribute to a good God.

And while I am awake at night I also ask myself: Should I have baked Auslander a chocolate cake?

Rabbi Moshe Rosenberg serves as rav of Congregation Etz Chaim of Kew Gardens Hills, N.Y., and teaches at the SAR Academy.

Recognizing Goodness


The news is replete with sensationalistic stories that expose the violence and callousness in our society. The media seem to be competing in a contest of one-downmanship. The gossip of human denigration captures our attention. The good men do is oft interred with the bones, the evil lives long after.

An incident occurred a few months ago in which two of my congregants participated. Russell Barkan, a rabbinic student flying back to the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York, was accompanied by his wife, Adina, both seated in coach. Adina is confined to a wheelchair, and early in the trip, she used an aisle chair to get to the lavatory. It was a cumbersome maneuver.

Upon seeing this, a young man approached her and insisted that she take his seat in first-class. She thanked him for his kindness and explained that she was traveling with her husband.

“That's okay,” said the man, “my friend will exchange seats with him so that you can sit together.”

Adina accepted and was moved by the man's generosity. When they were seated in first-class, Russell whispered to her, “Do you know who that was?”

Adina didn't have the remotest clue.

“That was Mike Tyson, the former heavyweight champion of the world.”

This gesture was not reported at the time, nor was it meant to be publicized. But I share this because there is an important lesson to be learned from such an event. We have a tendency to either divinize or demonize our heroes. Either extreme is dangerously misleading. But it is especially important in a society which needs heroes to recognize the goodness of their character. In the Jewish tradition, this virtue goes by the name hakarat ha'tov, the recognition of goodness.