November 13, 2019

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.