Goods Deeds or Not Good Deeds

That is the question, but pray tell, what will the answer become?

3.15 Rabbi Elazar Ha-Modai taught:

A person who profanes the sacred,
despises the festivals,
shames a fellow human being publicly,
annuls the covenant of our father Abraham,
and contemptuously perverts the meaning of Torah,
though he be learned in Torah and perform good deeds,
shall have no share in the world-to-come.

Though he be learned in the Torah and perform good deeds–such a man, this teaching tells us, shall have no hope for eternal life, but I ask you this: Is this man truly a man who performs good deeds? Can such a man exist at all?

We can address easily two points on the list–namely, the last two–with a simple and straightforward proof: If a man annuls the covenant of Abraham (circumcision) he must know the Torah, or else how would he know the meaning of circumcision? Also, should he pervert the Torah’s meaning, he must first know what it means, and should he do it contemptuously, he is acting intentionally with distaste toward the Torah.

So the first part of the sentence rings true–though he be learned in the Torah–but being learned in the Torah does not immediately make one a doer of good deeds. In fact, given the character profile of this man, I still find it difficult to say he performs any good deeds at all.

First, let’s look at the accusation of profaning the sacred. On its surface, this seems obvious: The profane is detestable and vile, a product of hell and the devil. Except that’s not the true definition of profane. The real definition is simply ordinary and common, mundane. To say this man profanes the sacred simply means he takes what is considered holy and makes it nothing more than any other object one might encounter. Consider it akin to placing a bible on a magazine rack, or more aptly, placing a handwritten scroll next to tabloids and breath mints.

Despising festivals is the next thing this man is accused of. Now, of course, the festivals being referred to here aren’t ones like Valentine’s Day or St. Patrick’s Day or even Christmas, which for various reasons are all commonly despised or simply often forgotten. These festivals are the cornerstones of Jewish observation, the Three Pilgrimage festivals of Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot (and probably extensible to other important dates, such as Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, and Shabbat).

To observe is to preserve. By retelling our stories every year, by returning to the holy land, by feasting on familiar foods and enacting the rituals we’ve adopted in place of performing sacrifices at the Temple–these festivals keep the Jewish identity strong and cohesive, builds us up and uplifts us.

To despise them is easy. Pesach food is flat (no pun intended) and limited in flavor. On Yom Kippur we have to fast. During Sukkot, we have to build a small hut, sleep in it, and then take it down–but this hut, you see, it can’t have a solid roof, and it has to be missing a wall, too: It’s not your everyday tent of comforts. But to say we despise any of these days for any of these things–that perhaps is saying too much.

Yes, there are things about all things that we complain about, but just because we complain about parts of the whole does not mean we’re complaining about the whole itself. This past Yom Kippur, fasting was the only way I was able to observe the day, and I found in fasting the meaning I needed to find: Yes, I could have complained about not being able to make it to services or not being able to eat, but instead I saw the meaning in the day and made the most of it. This man the teaching describes doesn’t find meaning in the festivals, only contempt.

Last–and worst of all–he shames people in public. This shows no respect for a fellow human and can do no good. However, I am reminded of times when although one feels shamed, the act of shaming that one person teaches a lesson to those in witness, a lesson that could remove them from shame as well. I’m actually reminded of Plato’s Apology in which Socrates defends himself from accusations of making wealthy and wise men appear dumb in public–all for teaching lessons to his students, using these men as examples.

I suppose there are circumstances among each of these three things that, although perhaps not the most moral or ethical decisions, are not inherently bad by definition. They are unlikable and discouraged, but not altogether bad. So perhaps the lesson I had thought we’d learn from this was where I was mistaken: The lesson is not that such a sinful yet doer-of-good-deeds could not exist, but that he very well can exist–in all of.

It’s easy to think our good points make up for our bad ones. We’re told in career workshops to find our strengths and build upon them or to locate our weaknesses and learn to compensate for them, either by practicing these skills or by finding others to complement us. It’s easy to see in grade point averages just how easily we can believe one good score will balance out an equally poor one. However, in actual events, this doesn’t work so well.

If I am kind to you, it does not forgive my unkindness to another–even if my kindness far outweighed my unkindness. If I have an accident today, my days without accidents don’t lessen the blow. We may live in a world designed to have checks and balances such as the three branches of our government, but there is no such system for our personal lives: Either our actions are in balance and things are good, or they are imbalanced and things are not good.

What I mean is that, as people, we must strive for wholeness and direction, aim for true integrity in all the things we do–how we act must match what we say and also reflect our intentions in both words and actions. Otherwise, no matter how learned we are, no matter how much goodness we do, we must be whole. We need honesty to not pervert what we know to others, respect for those around us and how we’re acting before them and toward them, and also an understanding that even our emotions and how we express them can be harmful to others.

And when I say it in those words, I make a convincing argument on the importance of developing our emotional intelligence.

I took a skills inventory the other night and the ability to express my love to others and my emotional IQ were ranked the lowest on a list of twenty-four skills. Partly I think it’s due to the general place in life I am at the moment, since I was answering based on how I’ve acted in recent situations not across my lifespan, but partly I think it’s because I do need to build my emotional intelligence–but this is an achievable end, since emotional intelligence is a skill set we can all acquire, with proper self-awareness and attention to others.

I’m not entirely sure if Rabbi Elazar was trying to tell us what leadership mentors are now suggesting for us, but it’s possible. If not, at least we can gain some important insight into our own lives–and maybe next time we read this teaching, we’ll get closer to its true intent. Only time will tell.


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