Goodness in Our Time

Cute Picture of Two Washington National Fans

My husband Richard informs me that whatever I say on this Shabbat, it should be about the Washington National’s win of the World Series!

My inner response was: Really? I know nothing about baseball! Fashion, yes. Baseball, no.

Then I responded: I am not sure it has anything to do with what I said my sermon topic would be.

But Richard’s opinion and sentiment, was very strong on this matter, so, as Tim Gunn would say on “Project Runway”:  I am going to “Make it work!”

Richard, having spent most of his career in DC; and being a fan of non-contact sports, such as baseball, is as has become clear in the last month, a fan of the Nationals. As I discovered in the last two weeks, he even paid full-price years ago at the Sports Store, for official merchandise Washington National’s Baseball Caps, one for him and one for his son Aaron. Yes, he has two of them! You should ask him later, to see the adorable picture of the dog and him wearing baseball caps and watching the game.

I think, it never came up in our relationship before, because, well, to say it bluntly: the Nats are not your classic winning team. They are one of two teams, in major baseball leagues, who had never, until this week, won The World Series. But this year, recruiting, other strong moves in their farm system, and good coaching led to an incredible season. The Washington Nationals, went from being team-underdog, to playing the Houston Astros in The World Series, winning an unprecedented four away located games, in what, I am told, was fantastic baseball.

So now. I will make it work. The Washington Nationals went from being not good enough, to being very good in their time!

Noah, our Torah portions tells us, was good in his time, he was an “Ish Tzadik Tamim Hayah B’doratav” – a righteous and pure man in his generation.

Rashi, the essential Jewish commentator, informs us, that some sages believe these words were in praise of Noah. He was a good man. That in a corrupt time, he displayed righteousness and purity, and that this trait of goodness would be a standout, relative to any time he lived in. Basically, Noah was a good chap in any context.

Rashi, also brings the opinion of those who disagree with that view. Some sages believe that Noah was good only in the context of his own time. If he had lived in a less corrupt age, such as Abraham’s generation, his goodness would not have stood out as anything special.[i]

So, is the trait of goodness only measured in its context? Or, is the trait of goodness a constant?

After our last Shabbat together, I had the chance to visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC and spent time in the three-levels of the history galleries. For those of you who have been there – the exhibition is thought provoking. I was struck initially by the color blindness of slavery pre 1400, and how it changed and developed into an industry based on skin color. I pondered how the rules of slavery changed from predominantly people who became slaves because of financial circumstances, indentured servitude or spoils of war, to Africans who were basically kidnapped for money and made to be slaves.

In our time, slavery is not seen as good. But this is a new concept. In former times, slavery was a reality for thousands of years. Even our Torah, which celebrates Jewish redemption from slavery, sees slaves as necessary for the running of society. Scripture has strict laws on how to fairly treat slaves – there are rules of behavior of the good person, towards the temporary and permanent slave who resided in their household.

In American history, the “goodness” of those who owned slaves, or even, advocated for the emancipation of slaves, was bound up in the societal mores of the times they lived in.

Famous was President Thomas Jefferson who advocated against the International Slave trade and who spoke about the gradual emancipation and colonization of American slaves. He also was the owner of over 600 Blacks, as they were called then, in his adult life. He wrote, as was commonly thought in his time, that he believed blacks to be inferior to whites. And in recent years, attention has been paid to his relationship with Sally Hemmings, a black woman who lived at Monticello, two of whose children he allowed to “escape” and the other two whom he freed after his death.[ii] Their descendants have been traced to his genome.

Knowing what we know about Thomas Jefferson, was he “Ish Tzadik Tamim Hayah B’doratav” – a righteous and pure man only in his generation?  Does his goodness exist only within the context and time of the attitudes in which he lived, or, can we imagine, that goodness was a part of his character make-up? We can wonder: if Thomas Jefferson lived today, would his attitudes be different because the attitudes of society have changed.

Is there a character trait, a personality trait of good, that is a constant no matter what era you live in? This is an argument that philosophers and theologians – from Maimonides, to Rousseau to Hobbes – have engaged in throughout the years. But perhaps the answer is not in the art of theory and argumentation, but in science.

Adrian Ward in a 2012 article in Scientific American[iii] writes of the results of recent multiple experiments to see if humans by nature are good, based on their selfless and selfishness. You would think, if we were to believe what we see through the lens of the camera on TV shows such as “Survivor,” or what is reported in the news, that many of us are selfish by nature.

In this millennia, scientific researchers from Harvard and Yale sought to find the truth, through multiple experiments with over 2000 participants:  Is our essential nature good?

Adrian Ward summarizes the findings:

“The results were striking: in every single study, faster—that is, more intuitive—decisions were associated with higher levels of cooperation, whereas slower—that is, more reflective—decisions were associated with higher levels of selfishness. These results suggest that our first impulse is to cooperate… and that we are fundamentally “good” creatures after all.”

So, while we pray that the good play of the Nationals be a constant in years to come, their “good” play, is, we know, time bound to any given year. But as far as human nature is concerned, science at least, would suggest, that goodness is more innate to our person. We might hope then, that Noah, would have aspired to be good in any context. And perhaps Jefferson would have had different attitudes and been regarded as a good man in this time too.

In the book of Proverbs, it is written “A candle of God is the soul of human-being”.[iv] The verse is interpreted to mean: Goodness lies within each one of our souls. It rests there and shines as our first instinct.

Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, a nineteenth century Hasidic teacher known as Sefat Emet, often spoke of the good light that shines in each person. Like our Harvard and Yale scientists, he believed that our initial instinct is to do good, to be good, and that we make a conscious effort to do the wrong thing.[v]

We live an existence where we choose how we walk in the world.

Once two women went out one night to explore the world. One equipped herself with a lighted torch while the other went out into the darkness without any light. When the one without a torch returned she said: “Wherever I walked there was nothing but darkness.” When the woman who took the lighted torch returned she said: “Everywhere I went I found light.”

The choice is ours. To go with our instincts to be good.

The choice is ours. When we make reflective decisions, to give weight to the good over what might be advantageous or selfish.

The choice is ours. To choose to bring light into this world.

Let us choose good for this time, and for the future, for generations to come.

Oh, yes… and for my husband – weren’t the Nat’s good this time?


[i] Rashi commentary on Genesis 6:9

[ii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Jefferson_and_slavery

[iii] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/scientists-probe-human-nature-and-discover-we-are-good-after-all/

[iv] Proverbs 20:27

[v] Sefat Emet on Parashat Reeh

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