Beyond the Façade: Seeking Goodness and Hope
On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, I spoke of chaos and creation, of how we need to make the most of what we have and how the Jewish Tradition may play a role in helping us through the most difficult times. The morning of Rosh Hashanah, I talked about Heshbon Nephesh, about trying to look at our lives from a perspective beyond ourselves and challenging our assumptions of the way things are. Last night, my sermon was about taking the next step, of expanding our thought processes beyond ourselves and then acting: not just thinking, not just speaking, not just singing, but dancing…doing.
How do we take chaos and make the best of it, move beyond our assumptions about ourselves and others, and having done that, act in such a way that we connect with God, with our people, with our community and with our world? It is not easy. Sometimes, it appears to be impossible. We are unsure even where to begin and feel a sense of hopelessness.
The spark of hope, the spark of holiness, is to be found if we look for it. Reb Dov Baer taught that there is even such a spark in sin:
This is a fundamental principle: in everything in creation there exist sparks of holiness. No thing, nothing is devoid of these sparks, even trees and stones. And, also in every human deed, even in a sin that one might commit there is a spark…
What is the spark in the sin? [What is the good to be found in a sin?] It is teshuvah (repentance). At the moment that we do teshuvah for a particular sin, we raise up the sparks that are in it to the supernal world.
This means that everyone can do some good. Everyone can repent. But what of the worst of the worst?
What about when we can see no hope? What if, when we think about someone, we can see only wickedness in them? In this vein, I wanted to share with you a teaching of Reb Nachman of Bratslav and to add a bit of my own commentary to his. This translation comes from Arthur Green. Reb Nachman taught that:
You have to judge every person generously. Even if you have reason to think that a person is completely wicked, it’s your job to look hard and seek out some bit of goodness, someplace in that person where he or she is not evil. When you find that bit of goodness and judge the person that way, you really may raise him or her up to goodness. Treating people this way allows them to be restored, to come to teshuvah.
This is why the Psalmist said: “Just a little bit more and there will be no wicked one; you will look at his place and he will not be there” (Ps.37:6). He tells us to judge one and all so generously, so much on the good side, even if we think they’re as sinful as can be. By looking for that “little bit,” the place however small within them where there is no sin (and everyone, after all, has such a place)—and by telling them, showing them, that that’s who they are—we can help them change their lives.
The Psalmist, to put the original statement into context, was speaking of the Messianic Age, a time when God will make evildoers vanish from the face of the earth and only the righteous will remain. Nachman’s statement takes this particular verse out of that context and into ours, the context of life as we live it every day. There are bad people out there. Are they incorrigible? Should we just write them off? Or should we attempt to encourage them to be better people? Should we seek out the goodness that may be found instead of focusing on the façade, or even the true face, of wickedness? Should we give people the benefit of the doubt if we perceive them to be wicked, assuming them to be bad through and through? It is not necessarily easy, but Reb Nachman would urge us to try.
It is well known that how we are treated by others can have a significant impact on how we act. For example, a child who is regularly told that he or she is naughty is more likely to act in that fashion than one who is told that he or she is good. A child perceives himself or herself to no small extent according to the way in which others describe them. When we get older, we still perceive ourselves to at least some extent, if not to a significant extent, by how others see us. How much of those things that we buy and of the time that we spend is directed at our appearance? From clothing to athletic clubs, from dietary products to makeup and hair, we invest our time and money in altering our appearance. Advertising, Marketing, and Public Relations are vital to the success of businesses.
We join groups and clubs, sometimes not because we are interested in what we can do because we belong to them, but because of the image belonging to them gives us. We can be vain and shallow. We can and do, as I pointed out on Rosh Hashanah, make assumptions about others. Often, those assumptions are based primarily or solely on outward appearances. This day…this Day of Atonement, we are urged to look beyond the façade into the depths of our character and that of others. As we think of others, whether those whom we have wronged or who have wronged us, it is vital that we see them as they truly are.
How many of us interact with people whom perhaps we cannot stand, who infuriate us? How many of us interact or have interacted with people to whom we can ascribe few if any positive characteristics? In how many of those instances is that because we have not looked for them? Some of us, in our present or our past, have been treated terribly badly and abused, wronged to the core. We all know of people whose actions are so terrible that we cannot even imagine that in such people good is to be found! Reb Nachman spoke of them as well:
Even the person you think (and they agree!) is completely rotten – how is it possible that at some time in this person’s life he or she has not done some good deed, some mitzvah? Your job is just to help him or her look for it, to seek it out, and then to judge that way. Then indeed you will “look at his place” and find that the wicked one is no longer there – not because he or she has died or disappeared – but because, with your help, that person will no longer be where you first saw them. By seeking out that bit of goodness you allowed teshuvah to take its course.
The important thing here is not that somehow suddenly the wicked person disappears or that they cease to be wicked, cease to be a bad person. Our tradition does not begin to say that. It takes effort to atone. What Nachman is saying is that they are able to move in a positive direction, away from complete wickedness in your mind and perhaps their own, to a place wherein some sort of teshuvah, some sore of improvement of their soul may BEGIN. As Reb Nachman put it, “you will “look at his place,” to quote from the Psalm, “and find that the wicked one is no longer THERE.” “THERE” is the operative word.
I would put this in a different way. I would say that our perception of the wicked person will have changed. We will see that person differently.
This is also important because how we perceive others affects how we view ourselves. If others can be totally wicked and have no chance of changing, “no help for them,” we say, might this be true for us? This understanding can lead us to depression and overpowering feelings of guilt and shame. Some of us here today may be in that emotional place.
Realize for a moment that if there is a glimmer of hope for the truly wicked, surely there is hope for us. If the wicked in whom we have difficulty finding goodness can change, how much the more so may we? This understanding on the other hand may lead us to a place of hope, a place of teshuvah.
Reb Nachman taught:
I know what happens when you start examining yourself. “No goodness at all!” you find. “Just full of sin.”…[Yet] You, too, must have done some good for someone sometime… [And Reb Nachman addresses the one who responds]“Even the good things I did were all for the wrong reasons. Impure motives! Lousy deeds!” “Then keep digging!” I tell you, “Keep digging, because somewhere inside that now-tarnished mitzvah, somewhere in it there was indeed a little bit of good.” That’s all you need to find: just the smallest bit: a dot of goodness. That should be enough to give you life, to bring you back to joy.
Challenge your assumptions about yourself! As children, we heard, “I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.” It is time you listened to those words as an adult and to these as well, “I think I’m good. I think I’m good. I think I’m good.” Self doubt, self criticism, can amount to self harm if we do too much of it. If instead, we focus on seeking out the good, the hope, even just a little spark, we can begin to change for the better. When we examine ourselves this day and show ourselves that we are people in whom there is good, in whom there is hope, in whom there is courage; we can change our whole lives and bring ourselves to teshuvah.
Nachman tells us that it is the first note of goodness that is the hardest to find. I would add that it is the first bit of courage, the first bit of hope, the first glimmer of light. Once we find that first one, that first spark, the ones that follow are easier to find. He concludes his teaching on Teshuvah:
These little notes of goodness in yourself – after a while you will find that you can sing them and they become your niggun, the niggun you fashion by not letting yourself be pushed down, and by rescuing your own good spirit from all that darkness and depression. The niggun brings you back to life and then you can start to pray…
Shiru L’Adonai Shir Chadash. Sing a new song. I spoke of this last night in the words of Rav Kook. Many of us on occasion, if not often, have difficulty even singing our own song, much less that of our people, our community, humanity and our world. We have difficulty entering prayer. We have difficulty, on occasion, facing others, leaving the safety of our cocoon, even if it is dark and dreary. We may be afraid of how others see us because a part of us does not like what we see in ourselves.
None of us is evil through and through. None of us is without merit to some extent, even if it is buried deep within. Some of us just have a bit more difficulty seeing goodness in ourselves and in others. Our good friend, Peter Pintus, whose memory is with us this day, was NOT one of those people. Peter always saw the goodness in everyone, was always ready to see the good in people and ready to forgive. I shared this at Peter’s funeral service, but think it appropriate to share this day as well.
On the wall of Peter’s office at home was the following sign:
So far today, I’ve done alright. I haven’t gossiped, haven’t lost my temper, haven’t been greedy, grumpy, nasty, selfish or indulgent. I’m thankful for that…
But in a few minutes, Lord, I’m going to get out of bed and from then on, I’m probably going to need a lot of help.
It is statement of humility, a statement of frailty, a statement of understanding. We connect with this humorous passage because we all, at times, feel this way, feel like the only reason that we have not done wrong is because we have not yet begun. In some ways, this evening we will be like the man laying awake in bed praying to God. This evening, sins hopefully forgiven, we will have a clean slate. We will not yet have sinned this year. There is hope for a new beginning even if admittedly it is one in which we need a bit of help to stay on the right path.
On this, day and any other day, when we have difficulty finding the words or when there are no words to find, we can sing a wordless song, a niggun, a song of notes of hope, notes of goodness. Then, perhaps, we can move on to words, to sing the song of our own life and even to add new verses in joy.
On this, the holiest day of the Jewish year, the gates are open. The gates of repentance are open wide for us to enter. These gates are also the gates of hope for a new beginning, for a better life. These gates are the gates of teshuvah, of repentance, yes, but also of return to hope-filled life. These are the gates that are the entry way to seek forgiveness from God and also forgiveness from ourselves. These are the gates through which we may seek Shalom, wholeness and completion; the gates through which we may reinvigorate our spirits and repair our souls.
“Su Shearim. Open up, O gates!” May we enter and be welcomed in forgiveness, wholeness, and joy!
Gamar Hatimah Tovah! Good Yom Tov!