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The Moral Test

04/06/2015 08:23:00 AM


The Moral Test
Yom Kippur 2004 by Rabbi Edward Feinstein

A Hasidic tale: There once was a Rebbe who worried that he could find no good person his generation. So he performed a simple experiment. He opened the window, and called over the first person passing by. When the fellow approached the window, the Rebbe asked him: "Suppose you found a wallet, filled with money, lying in the street. What would you do?"

Without even a moment's hesitation, the man responded confidently: "I would do the right thing, Rebbe. I would go into the marketplace and find the owner so that I could return the lost wallet and the money."

"You are a fool," the Rebbe responded, and dismissed the man.

Then he tried again. He flagged down a passer-by and asked his question: "Suppose you found a wallet, filled with money, lying in the street. What would you do?"

This man also answered quickly and confidently: "You know, Rebbe, it's a tough world. A man has to take advantage of every opportunity that's tossed his way. I'd take the money, Rebbe, and tell no one."

"You are a bad lot," the Rebbe responded, and dismissed this man.

A third time, the Rebbe waved down a man and asked his question: "Suppose you found a wallet, filled with money, lying in the street. What would you do?"

This man didn't answer right away. He looked into the Rebbe's eyes, then down at his shoes, then up into the Rebbe's eyes again, and then shrugged. After long last, he ventured a tentative answer:

"Rebbe, to tell you the truth, I don't know what I would do. I would certainly hope to do the right thing. But I know the power of my evil impulses, my selfishness and short-sightedness, and what a temptation a wallet full of money would be. So I would pray to God for the strength to do what was right. And I'd hope I'd do the right thing."

The Rebbe shook his head: "You are a true sage."

Three individuals. Three answers to an elementary moral question. Three moral types, three kinds of moral character. Perhaps you've met them. Perhaps you know them. Perhaps you are them.

The first man has the right answer, so why is he called a fool? He offers his answer without a moment's hesitation. Without a moment's reflection, he knows exactly what he'll do. He doesn't consider the power of the temptation and the weakness of his will. He is unaware of the possibility that his good intentions might become twisted. He can't conceive that he might fail.

He knows what's right, but he doesn't know himself. He doesn't know his own dark side. He doesn't know his own capacity for doing evil. He has never met his own shadow. He has carefully hidden from himself his selfish impulses and covetous desires, hidden his moral shortcomings. It's not that he won't confess his capacity for evil; he simply doesn't see it. It's not there for him. Try and point out this moral blindness and he'll interrupt and recite for you what a wonderful person he is, what wonderful things he does. Persist, and he'll politely inform you that you must have him mistaken for someone else.

So sure of himself, so sure that he is a good man, he is perpetually ready to offer moral advice to others. He is a moralist, fluently pointing out the flaws and failures of others. He lives in a world where right and wrong are simple and clear. The moral complications that others struggle with only reveal their personal inadequacy. If they were as good as he is, they wouldn't have to struggle so much.

So certain is he of his own goodness, he believes that whatever he does is right, by definition. And no matter how it turns out, he will go on insisting that what he did was right. After all, he's a good man and he meant to do well. In this, he becomes profoundly dangerous.

In 1961, the New Yorker magazine sent Hanna Arendt to Jerusalem to cover the trial Adolf Eichmann, the notorious nazi. Her reports were compiled and published in a book entitled, Eichmann in Jerusalem. This is the single most frightening book I've ever read. Because Arendt didn't find in Eichmann the moral monster that the world expected. He wasn't the devil. He was a little man, balding, with thick glasses and a rumpled suit. And it turns out, he was a nice man. Nice. He loved his wife and his kids. He was playful with his dog. He didn't hate Jews. He had Jewish neighbors and friends. He went to work every morning, arranging train schedules for the SS. What was on those trains? Could have been widgets or sprockets; turned out it was Jews. It didn't matter-- all he did was arrange schedules. He was good at it. So good at arranging schedules that, in the waning days of the war, as Germany was retreating and running out of everything, men, guns, oil, trains, Eichmann managed to deport 400,000 Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz where they were murdered. And each night he went home to his wife and his kids and his dog. Nice man.

We have a cultural penchant for imagining evil personified in moral monsters and mad geniuses. It's safer that way. It's more comfortable to think of Nazis and terrorists as belonging to a different species than ours. They are madmen, insane, inhabiting a world different than ours. Perhaps that's true for Hitler, perhaps for Saddam and Osama. But Eichmann is the guy next door. Common, ordinary, unremarkable guy, engaged energetically in carrying forward history's darkest evil. He's a guy who thought of himself as a good person: loving husband, dedicated father, loyal friend, devoted citizen. That's where the darkest evil makes its home. Arendt subtitled her book, A Report on The Banality of Evil. Eichmann is no monster. He's just like us!

Are we so morally blind? We are not Nazis. We are not evil. Open another book, a book with a different message. Open the Bible's book of Amos. Here too, an ordinary man. He's a farmer, he tends orchards in the north of Israel at the beginning of the 8th century BCE. He comes to visit Samaria, the great capitol of the Northern Kingdom, at the height of its prosperity and power. Only Amos doesn't see what others see. God has touched his eyes. He walks past the grand boulevards, past the luxurious palaces, the splendid plazas, and he's unimpressed. He doesn't see them as monuments to civic achievement. To him, they are all a faÁade, a false front, hiding the truth of this society --its corruption, its viciousness, its callousness. The measure of a society is not in the monuments to its wealth, but in its treatment of the poor and the helpless.

They have sold for silver 
Those whose cause is just, 
And the needy for a pair of sandals. 
You who trample the heads of the poor 
Into the dust of the ground, 
And make the humble walk a twisted course.

Prophecy is not in the mouth, but in the eyes. To see what everyone sees but no one notices. To see what everyone else has so accepted as given, as normal, as fixed, as fact. What incenses Amos in 8th Century Samaria are not spectacular acts of public evil, but the daily rhythm of violence against body and soul that is latent in any urban society, even the most prosperous. Already 2700 years ago, he recognized the extraordinary degree of moral blindness that is demanded of us just to walk the streets of the city.

Blindness to the enormous disparity between rich and poor that surrounds us. 
Blindness to the physical violence that attends life in this city for so many of its citizens. 
Blindness to the spiritual violence that steals the ambitions and dreams of so many of its children. 
Blindness to the coarseness of what passes for culture, and the senseless triviality of what passes for political discourse.

Try seeing our city as Amos might see it: 
Go look into the eyes of the mother waiting 6 hours in the emergency room of the public hospital with her sick child; waiting for basic medical care that is unavailable, because she is among the 45 million Americans who are uninsured.

Look into the eyes of the father of the immigrant family stuffed into the tiny apartment, because this city is short a half million housing units for the working poor.

Look into the eyes of the teacher who struggles to overcome crowded classrooms and rigid bureaucracy to save a few young lives and a few young souls in our public schools.

We are not Nazis and we are not evil. But we live near the top of this society's economic pyramid --a society that is at the very tip of the world's prosperity. We choose to look upon our privilege as a fact of life --a given, a datum of existence. Very subtly, we shift the burden of moral proof from off our shoulders and onto those who suggest that something here is wrong, that something demands change and reform. Somehow it escapes our attention that living a life so privileged, in the midst of so much need, is itself a moral fact that demands much of us. It escapes us that we carry a moral burden.

But we are good people; charitable people; concerned people. Our intentions are righteous. If there is injustice, we're certain that we aren't responsible. The prophet whose shrill voice calls us to account for our complicity --he's mistaken when he points at us. Isn't he? Or is this precisely the willed blindness -- the earnest desire not to see and not to know, that Hannah Arendt called, the banality of evil.

The Rebbe asks, what would you do? And he reflexively gives the answer. He is a good man. He means to do well. He knows what's right. He assures the Rebbe, with certainty that he would do what's right. And the Rebbe says, "You're a fool."

A second man arrives. His answer is different: You're a rabbi. You live your life in books with your head in the heavens. I live here, in the real world. In the real world, you grab what you can. And if you don't you're a fool. And I'm no fool, rabbi. You can have your ideals and your ethics and your spirituality. I'll take the money.

He tells us our visions, our ideals, our goals are foolish. Maybe in books, but not in the real world. He laughs at us. What sort of fool gives away found money? For what reward? What do I get from it? And why do you ask? Why do you care so deeply? Why do you try so hard? What is this illusion you call meaning that you pursue with every ounce of your being? Not me, he says, not me. I'm no fool.

Who is he? Who is this cynic, this skeptic, who calls into question the ideals, the purposes we strive for?

Often, he's a person who has himself tried and has been hurt, disappointed, betrayed by life and has given up. And he says, the only thing I can get out of this life is what I can grab, and what I can keep.

What the cynic fails to remember is that every benefit he enjoys, every comfort and freedom of his life, was won because others sacrificed, and others cared for more than themselves. He's like the wicked son of the Hagaddah who says: What is this that you are doing? And the Hagaddah rightly says, were he in Egypt, he would not have been redeemed. Of course. Because only one prepared to dream, to hope and to risk, would have followed Moses across the Sea and into the wilderness.

The cynic forgets that evil in the past was overcome only because there were those in the past who were willing not to be cynics, not to despair, not to surrender, but to take on the burden of others.

He believes he's a realist. And he pities you your foolish idealism. He knows from experience that efforts to shape the world, to repair it and improve it, are futile. Your activism is a waste of time. You can't do anything about the world, because there's too much evil, because nothing ever changes, because that's the way the deck is stacked, and you'll burn out long before you see the fruits of your labors. Like Kohelet in the book of Ecclesiastes he reasons:

One generation goes, another comes, 
But the earth remains the same forever. 
All streams flow into the sea, 
Yet the sea is never full; 
Only that shall happen which has happened, 
Only that occur which has occurred, 
There is nothing new under the sun!

This belief is the object of the Bible's fiercest polemic. This is idolatry. Idolatry isn't the worship of trees and rocks, of sun-gods and rain-gods. If that were the case, the Bible would dismiss it as simply foolish. Idolatry is a matter of seeing the world as it is, as the sum total of reality. Idolatry sees the world as fixed -- empty of possibility, of alternatives. It is to declare: "What is, is what must be. What is, is inevitable and immutable. The future cannot be redirected or repaired."

Idolatry is a theology of moral surrender. It is the diametric opposite of Judaism.

When Moses meets God at the Burning Bush, he asks, what is your name? And God replies the strangest of answers: Ehyeh asher ehyeh. "I will be". The Bible gave the world monotheism. And the Bible gave the world the future tense. To believe in God is to envision a future that is open to possibilities: What might be. This is the God the cynic denies.

And not just God. He has lost faith in human goodness. He scoffs at our expressions of moral vision. He suspects our motives and distrusts our plans. Too many times has he walked down the road to hell paved with good intentions. He doubts even his own intentions -- especially his own intentions. Because he knows how convoluted and complex and dark is his own heart, he trusts no moral gesture. Selflessness, altruism, generosity, moral greatness are foolish delusions. And rabbi, he repeats, I'm no fool.

Ultimately he believes in no morality, except one: Take. Grab. Hold tight.

According to Pirke Avot: The one who says, what is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours, this is midat s'dom --the ethics of Sodom and Gemorah, the formula for social destruction.

The Rebbe calls him, the bad lot. But it's more than an immoral position. It's tragic. Because the cynic forgets that the question is not really what can I do to satisfy myself -- but what kind of self will it most satisfy me to become? In his cynicism, he becomes so narrowly self-centered as to cease to be human. V'eem ani rak l'atzmee, mah ani. If I am only for myself, Hillel asked, then what am I? He's right. He's no fool. But he's no person either.

And finally, the last fellow, the man who isn't sure. An unlikely hero for a Hasidic tale -- What kind of moral hero is he? Why is he the true sage?

He hesitates. He reflects. And he prays. He knows well his own moral complexity. He knows his capacity for evil. He is well acquainted with his shadow. But he also knows what is right. He responds to the tug of conscience. He doesn't give up his moral vision. He believes in what might be --what the world might be, what he might be. He is caught in a struggle.

You remember the Talmud's story? Once, a stranger approached the two sages of the first century, Hillel and Shammai, and asked each of them to teach him the Torah, all of Jewish wisdom, while he balanced on one foot. Shammai whacked him with a builder's rule, and dismissed him. Hillel brought him in and taught him: What's hateful to you, do not do to you neighbor. That's all of Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and learn.

The tradition embraced the answer of Hillel, because he welcomes the outsider and offers gentle teaching. And that's right. But Shammai was more right. Because Judaism can't be done on one foot. It's never so simple, never so resolved. The image is suggestive: The Yogi so possessed of inner calm that he balances effortlessly on one foot, or the moral hero so possessed of righteousness that goodness flows effortlessly from him --this is not Judaism. Serenity is not a Jewish value. Judaism is about struggle. It is about living in an unending tension. Judaism is about living within the struggle of self-transcendence -- between the is and the ought, between the way things are and the way they should be, between who we are and who we might yet become, between the actual self and true self that seeks to be born into the world.

The fundamental language of Jewish spirituality, in the Bible and in the Talmud, is mitzvah, commandment. The mitzvah demands that we reach and become more than we are -- more moral, more holy, more Godly. But the mitzvah only makes sense if it can be fulfilled. So at the very same time that it reveals how far we've yet to go, it celebrates what's already inside us. Who am I, the actual self so morally compromised, or the truer self of my moral ideals? The mitzvah tells me: I'm both. I need the mitzvah, because I'm still the morally compromised actual self. I can fulfill the mitzvah because within me, I have the seeds of the truer self.

Self transcendence is painful and slow. It is so very difficult to line up the mind and the heart and the hands--our thoughts, our feelings and our acts, so the Jewish tradition teaches mitzvot: Begin with the act. Light candles. Give tzedaka. Say a bracha. Visit the sick. Bring food for the hungry. You will act your way into right beliefs and right feelings, long before you will believe you way into right action. Jews don't take leaps of faith, taught the philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel, we take leaps of action. "Knowledge of God, he wrote, "is knowledge of living with God. In carrying out the word of Torah [the Jew] is ushered into the presence of spiritual meaning. Through the ecstasy of deeds we learn to be certain of the here-ness of God."

"Rebbe, to tell you the truth, I don't know what I would do. I would hope to do the right thing. But I know the power of my evil impulses. So I would pray to God for the strength to do what was right."

He is sage because he has insight. He is a moral hero because he seeks self-transcendence. But he belongs to us because he prays, and because of the way he prays. He isn't worried about meeting the world and its trials. But it's when he meets the self, he knows he needs help -- when he meets his fear, his pride and his envy, his doubts and his depressions, his desires and distractions. He needs help. He asks God to change nothing in the world. He asks God only for the strength to fulfill the vision of his truer self. He prays for the power of self-transcendence. And the prayer is answered. Because the prayer itself is an act of self-transcendence, a reassurance that we can be more than we are.

Among the very strangest things we Jew do, is the recitation of the mourner's kaddish. Broken by grief, laid waste by sorrow, betrayed by God, alone, so terribly, terribly alone, the mourner is asked to rise in the community and recite: "Magnified and sanctified may His great name be, in the world He created. And may His kingdom come in your lives and in the lives of all Israel."

Kaddish is the greatest single act of self-transcendence that Judaism demands: To stand in the presence of death and declare that we still choose life. No act of moral courage can match this. In the powerful words of the Rav, Yosef Dov Soloveitchik: Kaddish declares: "No matter how powerful death is, notwithstanding the ugly end of man, however terrifying the grave is, however nonsensical and absurd everything appears, no matter how black one's despair is and how nauseating an affair life is, we declare and profess publicly and solemnly that we are not giving up, that we are not surrendering, we carry on the work of our ancestors."

We are called Jews. Named for our homeland Judeah, which in turn is named for our ancestor Judah. Who was Judah? Who is our namesake? Judah was the fourth son of Jacob, and the leader of Jacob's 12 sons. In the Torah's story, when his brothers conspired to murder Joseph and steal his fabulous coat, Judah revealed the depth of his cynicism and the breadth of his moral blindness. "What do we gain by killing our brother and covering up his blood? Come let us sell him but not do away with him ourselves, after all, he is our brother, our own flesh." Killing the boy is messy. And it has no payoff. So sell him to a passing caravan, and walk away with change in your pocket and no blood on your hands! Conceal the crime. Lie to the bereaved father. Eventually all will be forgotten and forgiven.

A lifetime goes by with its twists of fate, and trials of faith. Soon after he watches his father collapse in grief over the beloved Joseph, Judah loses two of his own children. He deceived his father, and in turn, is deceived and seduced by his daughter-in-law.

Famine comes to Canaan. In Egypt there is food. Judah finds himself standing before the ruler of Egypt, an inscrutable, irascible man who threatens to kidnap and hold his youngest brother Benjamin. We who read the Torah know that the Egyptian ruler is his lost brother Joseph, and that the threat is a test. But Judah only knows the terrifying irony that life has returned full circle. Once again, the fate of a brother is in his hands. Once again, he must decide what it means to be a brother. Once again, he weighs the impulse to turn away and save himself against the voice of responsibility that has grown so strong in these years of suffering and trial. And suddenly, there is the moment of self-transcendence that defines Judah.

Vayigash yehudah, Judah stepped up, says the Torah. Judah stepped forward. Judah arose. His soul was roused and he rose.

Judah stepped up and declared: "Take me. Take me as a slave in place of the boy. Let the boy return with his brothers. For how can I go back to my father without him. Let me not see the sorrow that would overtake him."

Vayigash yehudah, Judah stepped upward. We are Jews. We are Judah's descendants. We seek to step upward as well, to transcend all that darkens our lives. We struggle to break through our moral blindness. We battle to shake off our cynicism. We pray for the courage to step upward and say, "Take me. Take me. But save my brother. Take me!" May our prayers be answered.

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Sat, August 15 2020 25 Av 5780