January 18, 2020

Our Decency

“At the moment of conception,” says the Talmud, “an angel takes the drop of semen from which the child will be formed and brings it before God. ‘Master of the Universe, what shall be the fate of this drop?’ asks the angel. ‘Will it develop into a strong person or a weak one? A wise person or a fool? A wealthy person or a poor one?’ Whether the person will be wicked or righteous, this he does not ask.”

Why not? Why doesn’t the angel ask God if the soon-to-be-formed person will be wicked or righteous?

Why not? Because the rabbis believed something that neuroscientists and psychologists have made unfashionable. The rabbis believed that we — not our genetic make-up, not our environment, not even God — are responsible for our moral choices. The genetic fix might be in when it comes to how tall or strong we will be, perhaps even how intelligent we might be, but not how decent we might be. Our decency, is up to us.

Rabbis have been divided for centuries as to whether Abraham passed or failed God’s test in this week’s Torah portion when he agreed to climb a mountain with his son, strap the boy down on an altar of stone and prepare to plunge a crude, iron blade into his chest. I for one am not conflicted.

When the angel calls out to stop the slaughter, the Torah is saying that although others might sacrifice their children, Jews do not. The Torah rejects Paganism as our moral benchmark. Abraham failed the test. Jews must have a different and — although it’s impolite to put it this way — a higher moral standard. For 3,000 years, we have believed that our decency is up to us.

Today, in America, a lot of people believe otherwise. Why? Because in many ways the highest ideal in America is freedom, and for many, that has come to mean the freedom to worry only about what is best for them. What makes me “feel good.” What makes them “happy.”

What happens when we follow this most unJewish of all paths through life? It’s not the big things that will go wrong — murder, rape — most of us understand how immoral they are. It’s the little things that begin to disappear when we worry only about ourselves — things like civility, decency, courtesy.

As psychologist Aaron Hass puts it in his book “Doing the Right Thing,” “generosity becomes replaced by reciprocity.” Instead of reaching out to others in kindness for its own sake, we start to ask what we will receive for the assistance we are about to render. We stop giving freely of ourselves and we start keeping score. Or worse.

What’s worse? Something Hass calls “cheap empathy.” It goes like this: Someone we know suffers a loss — a lost job, a lost marriage, a lump in the breast, a pain in the chest, the lost life of a loved one. We watch, we listen, we even call, but what do we say? We say the seven words that add up to cheap empathy — “Let me know if you need anything.”

When we say “Let me know if you need anything,” we place the burden on the one who is suffering. Our job as friends, as human beings, is to anticipate the needs of the suffering, to think about what we would need if we were in their position and then to provide it without being asked. So many of us offer cheap empathy, hoping we won’t be taken up on the offer.

Here’s a simple story about a congregant in a colleague’s synagogue. He was an important attorney. He rose to the highest levels of leadership in the Jewish community — even to the point of being involved in negotiating peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Now, this man was retired. To fill his time, he volunteered a couple of days a week as an ombudsman at a local nursing home. It was his job to handle complaints and be an advocate for the residents and their families. It was at the nursing home that my colleague bumped into the former attorney.

“I know what you’re thinking,” the man said to his rabbi “I used to be an important person, and now, here I am at this nursing home. But rabbi, do you see that man over there? Yesterday, when they served him his lunch they put half of a cantaloupe in front of him and 30 minutes later they came to take it away. I stopped the woman removing the tray and I told her, “This man has had a stroke. He can’t eat a cantaloupe like that. You have to scoop it out for him.’ So she did scoop it out into bite-sized pieces.

Then, the man slowly lowered his spoon, placed one piece upon it at a time and gently brought them to his mouth. “Rabbi, ” he concluded, “watching that man eat his cantaloupe yesterday was one of the finest moments of my life.”

No keeping score. No worrying about what he would get in return for his kindness. No “Let me know if you need anything.” No excuses. Just anticipating; finding a way to be kind to another. Just a single decent act. A simple recognition of a simple truth: that our decency is up to us.

Rabbi Steven Z. Leder is the spiritual leader at Wilshire Boulevard Temple and the author of “The Extraordinary Nature of Ordinary Things” (Behrman House, Inc.).