Acts of goodness & kindness
any people feel that life in accordance with Torah and mitzvoth- commandments are restrictive, limiting the individual in personal creativity, particularly in the area of thinking and choosing for oneself. It is hard to reconcile such commitment with the idea of personal freedom. Furthermore, is it necessary to have the shackles of G-ds Torah to be a good person? There are thousands of people who are good, moral and decent human beings, however non-Noahides. They engage in acts of kindness both within the Jewish and non-Jewish communities. They lead active lives and many are role models in the worlds of science, art and commerce, however they do not keep the Noahide laws, in a sense of accepting the covenant with the Creator giving to them through Moses on Mount Sinai. What is wrong with being a good person but not a Noahide?
Can One Be a Good Person Without Being a Noahide?
We all wish to live a good life. Most of us think that this means having the best of what life has to offer: a good and supportive family, good parents, a good spouse, good children and grandchildren. A good income and home. A good environment and community, good friends, and – most important – having a good time. A sum total of all good things equals a good life. A person starting out in life is faced with the puzzling question of how to create this good life.
Taking a look around us we see that life is far from perfect and full of pitfalls. In today’s modern fast-moving world, more and more children are born into broken homes, more couples are splitting up and more people are suffering from depression and lack of self esteem. More people are discovering that material wealth does not ensure the road to happiness. More people are taking pills, drugs and tranquillizers. You have to be very lucky indeed to hit the jackpot and have all the factors in place to create the good life. In the end most of us settle for mediocrity, acknowledging that you can’t have everything in life, a somewhat sobering but pragmatic conclusion. What is, therefore, the secret of the good life?
G–d is Good
G–d, the Creator of man, who is also Creator and Master of the whole world, surely has the best qualifications that might be expected of any authority to know what is good for man and for the world in which he lives. G–d has not withheld this knowledge from us. G–d is good and it is the nature of good to be good. In His infinite kindness He has communicated to us, that if a person conducts his life in a certain way, he will have a healthy soul in a healthy body, and it will be good for him in this world and in the World to Come. It just makes plain common sense that in order to have a good life one should follow the directives of the Creator of man, even if there are aspects of those directives which superficially seem restrictive or difficult to accept.
An analogy may be drawn from a car. Before one steps into a car it is highly advisable to consult the manual in order to achieve the best performance levels from the car. Anyone who ignore the instructions could damage the car and, in some cases, the driver as well.
In truth there are many things in daily life which a person accepts and follows without question, even if he be a highly gifted intellectual with a searching bent of mind. For example, a person will board a plane without having first researched aerodynamics to verify that it is safe to fly in and that it will bring him to his destination at the scheduled time.
To take an example from the area of physical health: there are drugs which are known to be useful or harmful to one’s health and a person would not go about trying to verify the utility or harmfulness of such a drug through personal experimentation. Even if a person had a very strong inclination to research and experiment, he would surely choose those areas which have not previously been researched.
This generally accepted attitude is quite understandable and logical. For, inasmuch as experts have amply researched these areas and have determined what is good and what is harmful for physical health, or have established the methods leading to further technological advancement, it would be a waste of time to repeat those experiments from the beginning. Furthermore, there is no assurance that some error may not be made leading to the wrong conclusions being drawn, possibly with disastrous effects.
What has been said above concerning physical health is also true in regard to spiritual health, and the means by which the soul can attain perfection and fulfillment. All the more so, since spiritual health is generally related to physical health, particularly insofar as a person is concerned.
TORAH IS TRUTH
It is quite certain that if a human being would live long enough, and would have the necessary capacities to make all sorts of experiments without distraction, interference or error, he would undoubtedly arrive at the very same conclusions which we already find in the Torah; namely, the need to observe the Noahide laws. The reason for this is that the Torah is the truth and is the ultimate good for a person.
But G–d, in His infinite goodness, wished to spare us all the trouble, as well as the possibility of error, and has already given us the results beforehand for the benefit both of those, who have the inclination and capacity to search, as well as for those who do not. G–d has definitely left areas where a person can carry on his own experiments in other areas which do not interfere with the rules laid down by Him.
Stated simply, the directives of the Torah are not a set of rules that have been given to impede or restrict the freedom of man. Rather, they are the pathway to a good life.
A fictional story is told of a bird during the days of creation. This particular bird was created without wings and when it looked around at other birds soaring in the heavens, it implored the Creator to allow it to fly. That night, whilst the bird was asleep, G–d affixed wings to its body. When the bird awoke and saw two new appendages to its body it said to G–d, “G–d, I asked you to make me fly, not to make me heavier.” G–d replied, “little bird, just flap them and you will see that you will fly.” The restrictions often seem like extra baggage but once we utilize them, they allow us to fly and soar into new heights.
The Torah places many restrictions on a person. The answer is that in every generation and age there is a form of bondage; an “Egypt”. Some people are slaves to their jobs, others to the desires of their body. Some worship money, others power. Torah is the antidote that frees a person from his personal bondage. It maneuvers a person into the enviable position of being able to maximize the goodness of this world, as well as the next.
G–d is not an tyrant or ruthless dictator who insists on His subjects keeping a meaningless routine. G–d is benevolent and good and wishes to bestow good upon His creation. The greatest act of Divine benevolence, was to give us a living Torah – a pathway through life which leads us to the greatest good a human may achieve both for his body and soul. In short, if a person wants to have good relationships with his parents, spouse or children he should follow the directives of the Torah. If he wishes for Divine benevolence he must dispense charity to the needy. These are the pathways, not only to bliss in the World to Come, but also to a meaningful and fulfilling life in this world.
In describing how a person must accept the commandments, the Rabbis often use the expression “acceptance of the yoke of mitzvoth”, which may imply that the mitzvoth are somewhat of a burden. However, the true meaning of this expression is to be understood in the sense that human nature makes it necessary to act on imperatives. For human nature and the Yetzer Hara, evil inclination are such that an individual might easily succumb to temptation. Temptation is sweet at the beginning but bitter at the end and human nature may lead an individual to disregard the bitter consequences because of the initial gratification. We see, for example, that children and very often adults also, may be warned that over-indulgence in certain foods would be harmful to them and may even make them so ill that for a period of time they may not be able to eat anything at all, yet they nevertheless reject all restraint to gratify their immediate appetite. In a like manner G–d has given us the “yoke” of Torah and mitzvoth, telling us that whether one understands them or not, or whatever the temptation may be, one must carry out G–d’s commandments unquestioningly.
The Divine bridge
There is a further point, and this is the most essential part of the concept of “yoke” of the Torah and mitzvoth. It is that although the Torah and mitzvoth have been given for the benefit of man, there is an infinitely greater quality with which G–d has endowed the Torah and mitzvoth. This is the quality of uniting man with G–d – that is, the created with the Creator – with whom he would otherwise have nothing in common. For, by giving man a set of mitzvoth, commandments to carry out in his daily life, G–d has made it possible for man thereby to attach himself to his Creator and transcend the limitations of time and space.
The Torah and mitzvoth constitute the bridge which spans the abyss separating the Creator from the created, enabling the human being to rise and attach himself to G–dliness. This bridge has been designed by G–d, for only He can span that abyss. It is quite impossible for a limited being to create his own bridge to the Infinite, for whatever bridge he may build, however spiritual it may be, it will still be limited according to the parameters of the created mind. This explains why a person cannot create his own path to G–d independent of Torah and mitzvoth. Torah is a revelation from Above, “And G–d came down on Mount Sinai”. It is He who reached out to us and provided the path to Him.
Of course this relationship can only be attained, if the person observes the Torah and mitzvoth, not because of the reward contained therein, whether for the body or the soul, but purely because it is the will and command of G–d. It is for this reason that the text of the blessing which a person makes before fulfilling a mitzvah does not mention the utility of the mitzvah, rather the fact that G–d has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us.
The very word “mitzvah” means both a commandment and a connection. The mitzvoth span the entire spectrum of human experience and give man the opportunity to be in sync with the Divine in both his spiritual and mundane affairs.
In fact, the essence of Judaism is the belief in a Creator, who brings the entire creation into existence from nothing every single second. His purpose is to create a physical world in which a person will create a fitting dwelling place for the Divine. This is achieved by connecting every aspect of the creation with the Creator. In short, a continuous performance of commandments.
Even in man’s most mundane activities he must connect with G–d. Before eating he must recite a blessing, realizing who is the Creator of the food. Whilst honoring parents he must realize that this commandment equal to honoring G–d.
The Torah teaches, “The reward for a mitzvah is a mitzvah.” Some commentaries explain this in the literal sense that the reward for a mitzvah is the opportunity to perform another mitzvah. However, in the light of the above, one may explain that the reward of a mitzvah is the very connection that the person has with his Creator whilst he is doing the mitzvah.
This connection is life itself. In a Jewish context life may be defined as something eternal, whereas death is something that is interrupted. The Rabbis teach that the righteous, even in death, are alive. The pleasures of this world are momentary. They may last for a minute, an hour, a week, or even a few years but, after a while, are gone. Life – true life – is eternal. When engaging in mitzvah performance, a person is connecting with G–d, and therefore with eternity itself, and so is truly alive. That connection lasts forever and stands above time. The righteous are alive even after death because their entire focus in this world is their connection with G–d which continues even after death. And the Ben Noah also shares in this eternal existence.
This leads us to the true definition of happiness. Ultimate happiness may not be gauged by any amount of self-gratification, even of a spiritual nature. True happiness may be defined as the knowledge that one is doing the will of G–d at any given moment. Such happiness is constant and permanent. A person may serve G–d with joy even when going through difficult moments. That attachment is, in fact, the true goodness that a person may experience, for it is an experience of G–d Himself. In fact, the greatest good that G–d could possibly give us, is Himself.
To explain further: The world is a creation by G–d and, as such, can have no common denominator with its creator. This world consists of a variety of creatures which are generally classified into four “kingdoms”: minerals, vegetation, animals and mankind. Taking the highest individual of the highest group of the four, i.e. the most intelligent of all men, there can be nothing in common between him – a created and limited being – and G–d – the Infinite Creator.
However, G–d gave us the possibility of approach and communion with Him by showing us the way that a finite created being can reach beyond his inherent limitations and commune with the Infinite. Obviously, only the Creator Himself knows the ways and means that lead to Him, and only the Creator Himself knows the capacity of His creatures in using such ways and means. Herein lies one of the most essential aspects of the Torah and mitzvoth. Although, to many, the Torah may be a means to gain reward and avoid punishment or just a guide to good living, being G–d given it has infinite aspects, and one of the most important is that it provides the means whereby we may reach a plane above and beyond our status as created beings. Clearly, this plane is far beyond the highest perfection which a man can obtain within his own created – and hence limited – sphere.
From this point of view it no longer appears strange that the Torah and mitzvoth find expression in such simple, material aspects as in, for example, the Noahide laws. For our intellect is also created and therefore limited within the boundaries of creation beyond which it has no access. Consequently, it cannot know the ways and means that lead beyond those bounds. The Torah, on the other hand, is the bond that unites the created with the Creator, as it is written, “And you that cleave to G–d, your G–d, are all living this day.” To the Creator all created things, the most corporeal as well as the most spiritual, are equally removed. The question, “what relationship can a material object have with G–d?”, has no more validity than if it referred to the most spiritual thing in its relationship to G–d.
The beauty of Torah and mitzvoth is that through simple everyday actions – well within the reach of normal individuals – every person can connect with the Divine and transform this world into an dwelling place for G–d. The Torah is not in heaven, rather, “it is exceedingly near to you, in your mouth and in your heart to do it.”
Now let us return to the original question – can a person be a good without being observant? The answer is that even if a person lives what he personally considers to be a good and moral life and engages in acts of kindness etc., although he is partially fulfilled through the mitzvoth he is doing (and living a good and moral life is truly desirable in the eyes of G–d), he is nonetheless denying himself the maximum and optimum goodness available and so missing out on a very precious opportunity, by not utilizing his potential for a deeply fulfilling relationship with the Creator.
The true meaning of good
In truth, without the Torah, which illuminates and gives directives to our rather complicated and rushed lives, we could possibly make a mistake as to what good means. Self-evident moral precepts, if left to human judgment without the binding force of Divine direction and sanction, can out of self-love be distorted so as to turn vice into virtue. Interpreting the moral precepts of “Thou shalt not kill … Thou shalt not steal” from the viewpoint of selfish gain, many a nation, as well as many an individual, have “legalized” their abhorrent ends, not to mention justifying the means to those ends.
If in a previous generation there were people who doubted the need of Divine authority for common morality and ethics in the belief that human reason is sufficient, our present generation has unfortunately, in a most devastating and tragic way refuted this mistaken notion. For it is precisely the nation which excelled in the exact sciences, humanities and even in philosophy and ethics, that turned out to be the most depraved nation of the world, making an ideal of robbery and murder. Anyone who knows how insignificant was the minority of Germans who opposed the Hitler regime realizes that the German cult was not something which was practiced by a few individuals but it had embraced the vast majority of that nation, which considered itself the “super-race”.
From this blatant historic example it is obvious that moral standards cannot be determined by individuals alone, for their human partiality will color their values. Rather, humankind should rely on a more absolute standard of goodness and morality which is set out by G–d in the values of the Torah. And it is no coincidence at all the defeated German gave itself in 1948 a constitution which mentions G-d in the very first line of the new constitution protecting human rights based on the Divine Image.
One of the basic messages of the Ten Commandments is contained in their opening words, “I am the L–rd your G–d” – the profound principle of monotheism which, in itself, was a tremendously revolutionary idea in those days of idolatry, dominated by the polytheistic culture of Egypt. This is detailed in the second commandment where all forms of idolatry are strictly prohibited. At the same time, the Ten Commandments conclude with such apparently simple and obvious injunctions as “Thou shalt not steal” etc.
The profundity of monotheism, with which the Ten Commandments begin, and the simplicity of the ethics and moral laws with which they conclude, point to two important lessons:
1. The true believer in G–d is not the one who holds abstract ideas, but the one whose knowledge of G–d leads him to the proper daily conduct even in ordinary and commonplace matters, in his dealings with his neighbors and respect for their property.
2. The ethical and moral laws, even those that are so obvious as “Thou shalt not murder” and “Thou shalt not steal”, will have actual validity and be observed only if they are based on the first and second commandments; that is to say, based on Divine authority, the authority of the One and only G–d, and abandonment of all other objects of false worship, including in our day the human ego.
The Ten Commandments emphasize, and experience has fully and repeatedly borne out, that even the simplest precepts of morality and ethics must rest on the foundation of “I am G–d” and “Thou shalt have no other G–ds” and only then can their compliance be assured. Torah and mitzvoth alone provide the true content of Jewish law and are at the same time the fountains of life for each and every person.
Torah is life
A life of Torah and mitzvoth is the surest path to a good life. It is the very best thing for a human being and will bring him to the greatest fulfillment in this world.
The greatest good a person may experience is G–d Himself. This connection is achieved through Torah and mitzvoth. The Torah is compared to light, live with light
First it is necessary to start observing the mitzvoth and eventually we will almost certainly come to a better appreciation of their significance and truth. To approach this matter from the opposite direction; that is, to understand first and only then to do, is wrong on two scores. First, the loss involved in not performing mitzvoth cannot be retrieved.
Secondly, the very observance of the mitzvoth, which creates an immediate bond with G–d, develops additional powers, which help us to understand and appreciate them. Take, for instance, a person who is ill and for whom medicine has been prescribed by a specialist. Would it not be foolish to say that he should not take it until he knew how the medicine could restore him to good health? In the meantime, he would remain weak and ill and probably get even worse. It is senseless because the knowledge of how the medicine does its work is not necessary in order to benefit from it. Moreover, while taking it he will get a clearer head and better understanding to learn how the prescription helps him.
To expand on this theme, the world is a well co-ordinate system created by G–d in which there is nothing superfluous or lacking. There is one reservation, however: for reasons best known to the Creator He has given man free will, whereby man can co-operate with this system, building and contributing to it, or do the reverse and cause destruction even of things already in existence. From this premise it follows that a man’s term of life on this earth is just long enough for him to fulfill his purpose; neither a day too short nor a day too long. Hence, if a person should permit a single day, or week, let alone months, to pass by without his fulfilling his purpose, it is an irretrievable loss for him and for the universal system at large.
The physical world as a whole, as can be seen clearly from man’s physical body in particular, is not something independent and separate from the spiritual world and soul. In other words, we have not here two separate spheres of influence as the pagans used to think, rather we are now conscious of a unifying force which controls the universal system which we call monotheism. For this reason it is possible to understand many things about the soul from parallels with the physical body.
The physical body requires a daily intake of certain elements in certain quantities obtained through breathing and consuming food. No amount of thinking, speaking and studying about these elements can substitute for the actual intake of air and food. All this knowledge will not add one iota of health to the body unless it is given its required physical sustenance; on the contrary, the denial of the actual intake of the required elements will weaken the mental forces of thought and concentration. Thus it is obvious that the proper approach to ensure the health of the body is not by way of study first and practice afterwards but the reverse, to eat and drink and breathe which, in turn, will strengthen the mental powers.
Similarly, the soul and the elements which it requires daily for its sustenance are known best to its Creator. A healthy soul is first and foremost attained by the performance of mitzvoth, and understanding of them may come later.
The lesson from all the above is clear enough. For a person, every day that passes without living according to the Torah involves an irretrievable loss for him and for all humankind, inasmuch as we all form a single unity and are mutually responsible for one another. It also has an effect on the universal order and any theories attempting to justify it cannot alter this in the least.
Here are some points to ponder
Can I be a good person without believing in G-d?
What is the Divine bridge?
What is the u ltimate happiness?
What is the true meaning of good ?
The Torah is life for every one?
Acts of goodness & kindness as G-d is