DO THE RIGHT THING
Yom Kippur! What do you want from me?
I’m working on no food or water. I’m spending 12 hours engaged in prayer and serious self-reflection. I’m beating my heart over 500 times in the course of the day. And you’ve got me scared out of my wits about that “Book” and who shall live and who shall…
“It’s very simple”, Yom Kippur says. “I want you to be a Tzadik.”
Whoa! Hold on just a minute. A Tzadik? Let me check my Hebrew – English dictionary. Tzadik: “A Saint. Devout. Pious. Godly. Upright. Angelic. Reverent. Holy. Just. Righteous.” That’s a pretty tall order. Are you serious? That’s what this is all about?
A Tzadik? You’ve got to be kidding me! Did you ever go into a Kosher pizza parlor in Brooklyn? They’ve got pictures of Tzadiks hanging on the wall. Same thing in most ultra-Orthodox homes. It could be the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachen Mendel Schneerson, born in Russia in 1902, died in Brooklyn in 1994. Or it might be the Baba Sali, Rabbi Yisrael Abu-Hatzera, born in Morocco in 1889, died in Netivot, Israel in 1984.
That’s who I think of when Yom Kippur tells me I should be a Tzadik. An old man, with a white scraggly beard. Wearing clothes that you just can’t get at Marshall’s. Someone who spends most of the day engaged in prayer or studying Torah. Someone with supernatural powers – a miracle worker. And a guy who has no interest in material things, whatsoever.
Let me see a show of hands – who’s signing up for that? I didn’t think so.
But on further reflection, I come up with a different image of a Tzadik. There’s a classic Yiddish story by Yud Lamed Peretz, “If Not Higher.” It was written sometime around the year 1900.
Every year before Yom Kippur, the Rabbi of Nemerov disappears, and doesn’t show up for services. His congregants naively think he’s up in Heaven, arguing with God over the souls of the Jews in his community.
A Litvak comes to town, hears the story about the missing Rabbi, and decides to show these simple people what fools they are. He sneaks into the Rabbi’s house, hides under his bed and waits… Four in the morning, the Rabbi wakes up, puts on peasant clothes, grabs a rope, and an axe and heads off into the forest. The Litvak follows him. The Rabbi chops down a tree, and cuts the tree into fire wood. He ties it up and carries it on his back. He comes to a small shack, and knocks. The voice of an elderly woman answers – ‘Who is it.’ “It’s me, Vasil, I’ve come to sell you fire wood.” ‘But I can’t afford to pay you.’ “So you’ll owe me. I trust you,” the Rabbi says. ‘But I’m too weak to make a fire.’ “I’ll take care of it – no extra charge.” And the Rabbi, pretending to be a Russian peasant, makes the fire, and shares some food with the poor old woman.
Next time the Litvak hears the people of Nemerov boast that their Rabbi is up in Heaven, he adds – “If not higher.”
I love that story, because Peretz is bringing a radical new idea of what it means to be a Tzadik. It’s not about Torah and Prayer. It’s about helping a human being in trouble. Not rituals, but ethics.
But still - is that what Yom Kippur wants of me? I’ve got a job, I’ve got a family. I can’t devote my life to chopping wood in the forest to bring to poor old ladies – or whatever the equivalent is today. Sure, I’m all for doing random acts of kindness. When I can. But if being a Tzadik means that that’s all I do – then I’m out.
But in studying the Laws of Repentance in the Mishneh Torah – a 13 th century code of Jewish law written by Moses Maimonides, I stumbled on what may be the answer. You want to know what Yom Kippur wants of us – you want to know what a Tzadik is? Listen to this:
“Anyone whose good deeds are greater than their sins, is a Tzadik.”
You see that second stained glass panel over there? It represents Yom Kippur. We are taught that God puts all other mitzvahs, our good deeds on one side of a balance scale and all our Averot, our bad deeds on the other. If the good side is heavier than the bad side, then we are judged to be a ‘Tzadik.’ If it tips the other way we are called ‘Rasha’ – wicked.
Maimonides tells us we should always assume that after all our deeds are weighed, the scale is exactly even. So the very next act we do will tip the scales – either to the good, or to the bad. How we are written into the Book of Life may depend on the very next thing we do. So, be careful!
What we learn from the Mishneh Torah is that a Tzadik is not a saint, whose entire life is dedicated to either Torah, or to Maasim Tovim (good deeds.) A Tzadik is, very simply, a person who does the right thing – more often than not.
Let me give you two examples from the Torah that prove the point.
Noah, we are told, was ISH TZADIK B’DOROTAV, ‘a Tzadik in his time.’ The Rabbis explain that Noah was no saint. He didn’t try, like Abraham did, to argue with God and save the rest of the world. And when Noah exits the ark after the flood, the first thing he does is plant a vineyard and get drunk, disgracing himself in front of his children. And yet Genesis calls him a Tzadik, because, more often than not, he did the right thing.
And then there’s Joseph, who is known in Rabbinic Literature as Yosef Ha-Tzadik. He too, was no saint. He was a spoiled brat who was a lousy brother – either ratting out his siblings to their father, or lording over them that he was their father’s favorite. And Joseph wasn’t such a great son. Though he knew how much Jacob adored him, when Joseph achieved power in Egypt, he waited years before sending word to his father that he was still alive – causing Jacob more heartache than was necessary. And yet, at a key moment Joseph did the right thing. When his master’s wife tried to seduce him, Joseph said No. There’s a remarkable statement in the Midrash where the question is asked: “Wait – you mean to tell us that a 17 year old teenager, on his own, away from home, was able to resist the temptation of an alluring older woman?” And we are told – Yes, he refused her advances, and that’s why, despite his other faults, he got the title of “Tzadik.” On that occasion he did the right thing.
So that’s what this is all about. We walk in to Temple for Kol Nidre – unsure of what we are here for – but when we leave after Neilah we are focused on doing the right thing wherever and whenever we can. OK. I’m on board. I can live with that. I’m ready to try to be a Tzadik.
But Yom Kippur: How will I know what the right thing is? Look, if my choice is good vs. evil – that’s easy. But Life isn’t always Black and White. So often we’re in the Gray Zone. The choices are complicated. How do I pick between two mutually exclusive goods, or how do I choose which is the lesser of two evils?
Some people rely on human nature. Follow your heart, go with your instincts, listen to the voice in your head. But that depends on whether you think Anne Frank was right. The most famous line in her diary is: “In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.” If she was correct, then you can trust your instincts will lead you to do the right thing. Just don’t forget that after being forced to hide in an attic for two years, she was turned in and sent off by the Nazis to Bergen-Belsen, where she died at the age of 16 from Typhus – one of six million of her people.
Judaism neither believes that people are really good at heart, nor than we are animals tainted with Original Sin. The Jewish view is that we have two opposing inclinations: The Yetzer Ha-Ra, the selfish side, and the Yetzer Ha Tov, the selfless side. These two inclinations are in constant battle – just like the angel and the devil on the shoulders in cartoons, each one whispering into the character’s ears.
Back in 1966, in the original Star Trek TV series, Captain Kirk was being transported when there was a malfunction; the transporter split him into two people, one totally good, one totally evil. The good Captain was incapable of making any hard decisions that might cause anyone pain. The evil Kirk was willing to sacrifice everyone and everything for his personal gain.
The Rabbis raised the question: Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone was only good? But, anticipating Star Trek by 2000 years, they answered: Were it not for our selfish side, a man wouldn’t take a wife, beget children, build a home, or go out and earn a living.
(In case you’re wondering, Scottie fixed the transporter and Spock put both Kirks in it – one hugging the other. They were sent out as two, and when they were brought back, they were, again, one person, with the two opposing inclinations.)
So you can’t always count on human nature – we just don’t know which side of us will prevail in any given situation.
Maybe knowing the right thing is a matter of how we were raised. It’s what our parents taught us, and ingrained in us when we were young.
The Midrash tells us that when Potiphar’s wife was enticing Joseph to sleep with her, he was ready to give into his hormones. But just at that moment, Joseph saw the face of his father, and he knew what he was contemplating was wrong, and would have caused Jacob to be disappointed in him.
I want to tell you about Lorraine Weiner. She and her husband took their two young kids to the Horn & Hardart Automat. The family got their trays and quickly filled them with their favorite dishes and went to sit down at a table. The kids noticed that their mom was not with them. They scanned the cafeteria looking for Lorraine. They spotted her, talking to a man who was sitting by himself, rather shabbily dressed, with nothing but a glass of water. After a few minutes, Lorraine got a tray, went through the line, paid for the food, and brought it to the man. She then joined her family. Her husband asked: “Lorraine, what was that about?” She said: “He’s a homeless man, so I bought him some food.” “That’s lovely, Lorraine, but why were you talking to him for so long?” “I needed to find out if he had any teeth. When I saw that he didn’t, I knew to get him soft food that he’d be able to eat.” This story happened more than 50 years ago. Yet it’s a lesson that her son – my friend – will never forget.
(What lessons do we pass on to our children?)
There’s a third way we Jews figure out how to be Tzadik. We learn it from our sacred texts. Think about all the times that you say AL HET on Yom Kippur. It’s not just a confession of sins. It’s a catalogue of what not to do:
Sexual immorality. Defrauding and cheating others in business. Denigrating Parents and Teachers. Committing physical violence. Taking bribes. Speaking ill of others. Hating people. Using foul language.
And then look at today’s Haftora, from the prophet Isaiah. He tells us straight out the kinds of things that God expects of us:
Helping to free the oppressed. Sharing our bread with the hungry. Finding shelter for the homeless. Providing warm clothes for those without.
And look at the alternative Torah reading in this afternoon’s Mincha service. There is no more powerful chapter in the Bible that Leviticus 19, which includes 50 different Mitzvot that teach us what it means to be a Jew, and a Mensch:
Take care of your elderly parents. Provide food for the poor. Don’t steal. Don’t lie. Don’t take advantage of, or ignore, or make fun of those who are disabled. Don’t pervert justice. Don’t stand by when others are suffering, or in mortal danger. Don’t hold grudges.
We study Torah because its stories and its laws teach us how to be a Tzadik. And we need to understand that Jewish prayer is not simply asking God for what we need. A good part of what we do when we come to Temple and open the Siddur or the Mahzor is listening to God telling us what we need to do…
But Yom Kippur – I’ve got to tell you: There’s a bit of a disconnect. What about people who do the right thing – but for the wrong reason?
There’s a very generous man who gives a lot of money to Tzedaka. He supports his Temple, and his Alma Mater, and a Hospital, and a Museum, and he’s helping to cure several deadly diseases and he supports a Women’s Shelter, and organizations that feed the hungry, and send sick kids to summer camp, and he’s contributing to candidates who share his vision of the world – and on and on. But suppose we learn that the causes don’t really matter that much to him. What he’s after is the glory and the KAVOD and the attention, and the plaques he can hang on the wall. Or suppose he gives so much because his accountant told him that if he didn’t, he’d be paying a lot more taxes to the government. Is this guy a Tzadik?
It’s a hot summer day on a long train ride from the city. You’ve got a seat, but the train quickly fills up, riders crowding in like sardines. There’s a pregnant woman who just makes it in before the doors close. Do you keep your head down and your eyes on your cell-phone, and pretend not to see her, or do you give her your seat and hang on to the pole for an hour, even though your feet are killing you after a long day at work? And do you give her your seat because you’re a kind person filled with Rochmonis – or because you’re trying to impress a pretty woman who’s watching the drama? Or because someone is on the verge of publicly embarrassing you? Are you a Tzadik?
We’ve been brought up to believe that it’s the thought that counts. Doing a deed with an ulterior motivation negates the value of the deed. But that’s not how Judaism sees it. The Rabbis teach us that there is only one mitzvah that can be pure – care of the dead, because we can have no hope of being repaid by the person we help. In all other mitzvot, our motivations may be selfish. But Judaism says: It’s the deeds that matter, not the reasons we do them.
On the wall of the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta, run by Mother Theresa, was a poem called The Paradoxical Commandments, written by Dr. Kent Keith:
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives.
Be kind anyway.
The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow.
Do good anyway.
Give the world the best you have and it may never be enough.
Give the world the best you’ve got anyway.
To which we might add: You may be doing the right thing for all the wrong reasons. Do the right thing anyway.
One last question, Yom Kippur: Why? Why is it so important that we each become a Tzadik?
And Yom Kippur tells me: Proverbs 10:25. That’s a verse in the Bible. Let me pull out a Tanakh. Book of Proverbs. Chapter 10. Verse 25. “Tzadik Yesod Olam” – “The Tzadik is the foundation of the world.”
Forgive me but what does that mean?
The world is falling apart. It is crumbling before our eyes. People’s heads are being cut off for the camera. Places of worship are being blown up. Poison gas is being dropped on civilians. Cars are plowing down streets running over victims. People are randomly being knifed. Gays are thrown off of roofs. Bombs are planted at concerts. Young girls are kidnapped and sold as sex slaves. Drug dealers execute anyone who gets in their way. Rogue nations are developing nuclear weapons and the capability to attack and destroy their enemies. The limbs of children are hacked off, and other kids are forced to kill members of their own family.
And I could go on and on with a litany of atrocities that occur each and every day in the world. And where is God? Either He is letting it happen, because He believes it is a punishment that you have brought upon yourselves. Or, having given humankind free will, He is incapable of stopping it. Or… He is waiting for you to make things right. You are God’s partners – and so far, you have let Him down.
One way or the other – it’s up to you. The only thing that can shore up the crumbling foundation of the world – are people doing the right thing. Tzadik Yesod Olam.
Tonight, the Shofar will blow to end Yom Kippur. That blast is not to call: “The Ordeal is over. Let’s eat!”
Hear it, rather, as a fire alarm that screams “ES BRENT!” There’s a fire out there! Gather together, go out and do something. Do the right thing. Be a Tzadik.