The High End of Spirituality

JWR Outlook

Jewish World Review / Sept. 15, 1999 / 5 Tishrei, 5760

The High End of Spirituality

By Rabbi Hillel Goldberg -- WE ALL KNOW ABOUT the low end of spirituality: I failed, and I know it. Or others say I failed, and they have the proof. Guilt, remorse or denial - this is the low end of spirituality.

This column is about something else - the high end of spirituality. About a curious defect that seems to attach to the finer side of all that we do.

And we all have a finer side. It's the side that rarely gets talked about on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The holidays' emphasis on judgment stresses the centrality of a critical eye. Of seeing, admitting, where we failed - of owning up.

And changing.

This is the common task on the ten days of repentance, and, let me hasten to add, correctly so.

But there is another side, too.

Equally important.

It concerns not our worst parts, our grudgingly admitted failings.

It concerns all that we do right - the high end of spirituality.


Have you ever been surprised when one of the finest people you know seems, uncharacteristically, to be ungenerous?

And, moreover, when this ungenerosity seems to follow a pattern?

The inconsistent unkindness sticks out precisely because it is seems so uncharacteristic.

Have you found it hard to explain this?

Take, for example, one of those rare souls who is always helping others.

Sometimes the help is with money, sometimes with advice, sometimes with hospitality.

Sometimes, it's just a piece of the person's character - always to be concerned, already ready to offer whatever is needed, from a sympathetic ear to a concrete favor.

Most (perhaps all) of us have run across one of these rare souls in our lives, somebody who's genuinely altruistic. A tzaddik.

But then, there's this dissonance. It is a strange failing, this ungenerosity peculiar to the truly elevated individual. His, or her, failing is not a slippage in all the good that he, or she, does. It's not what might typically be called a failing, what might typically be paid attention to on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Not: I always seem to do a certain mitzvah, but a few times I failed - and I need to correct that. No, not that.

Leiters Sukkah

Rather, it's this: A comment that a kind, generous person lets drop about someone else who does not share his generosity of spirit. A comment about how someone else could help, too.

Say an individual is a phenomenal host, always taking in the lonely, the destitute, or, simply, friends and relatives. And she'll keep doing it no matter what anyone else does or does not do. But once in a while, she'll let a comment drop: Why doesn't so-and-so help out too? Why doesn't so-and-so also take in a guest once in a while?

Again, the hospitable person is not going to decrease her hospitality for the lack of help from others. Nor is her comment about others necessarily bitter. It can stem from wonder, from perplexity: here, I extend all this hospitality, over and over, and I can manage it; in fact I love it. Truly, what is the big deal for someone else, who seems unable to be hospitable even once in a while?

The late Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky observed the following about Abraham, when he prayed for the sinners in Sodom and Gommorah.

This famous dialogue with G-d is found in the fourth Torah portion in Genesis. G-d is about to destroy the two cities that have since become a metaphor for the epitome of evil. Abraham our Father cannot stand the prospect of their destruction. Maybe there are 50 righteous people (tzaddikim) in the city, he pleads with G-d; will you destroy the righteous with the wicked?

Rabbi Kaminetsky observed: Abraham was the last person to be expected to pray for Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham is identified by G-d as the epitome of kindness (chesed), of doing for others. The two cities were the epitome of the opposite of kindness. Their citizens were selfish in the extreme, even cruel.

Here were people who Abraham would have been repulsed by! They were not only "wrong." That's a dry, objective, legal perspective. They went against everything he was. That's an emotional, subjective, psychological perspective. Abraham's innermost character should have been at peace with the extirpation of wrongdoing.

And yet, he prayed for these sinners.

He went up against G-d, so to speak, for them.

He was kind, they were cruel, yet his heart burned against their Divinely mandated fate: destruction.

The point is this: Abraham did not suffer from the common malady on the high end of spirituality. Abraham's generosity of spirit did not exclude those who did not share his values. Abraham did not comment, even out of sheer perplexity: Why aren't the Sodomites different? Why can't they see the rewards in helping others? Abraham did not concur with G-d and say: Yes, the Sodomites deserve to be punished. Too bad, to be sure. But look: the record is clear. It's objective. Their sins reach to the Heavens. They are simply unsalvageable.

Abraham did not say this.

Abraham's level was high indeed. Contrast it not only to the perfect hostess who is uncharacteristically ungenerous on rare occasion. Contrast it to anyone who is numbered - rightly so - among the finest people we know.

Contrast it, for example, to the person who is a paragon of charity. There is no cause he does not support, no indignity he ever inflicts on any needy supplicant. Just one thing: he cannot grasp someone else who does not live up to his own charity, tzeddakah obligations.

Contrast it, for example, to the immigrant who made good. This person once wondered where the next meal would come from, but from sheer dint of will, hard work and discipline, he pulled himself up by his own bootstraps. Now that he has "made it," he shares his bounty. He is not condescending, not arrogant. There's not a trace of superiority in him. He is understanding of everyone. Just one thing: he recoils from the beggar in the street. There's something about the man who made it that says: I could do it, why can't he?

Or take the genuine penitent (ba'al teshuvah). He did not grow up in a Jewishly observant home. By his own struggle, he grasped the beauties and sanctities of the Torah. And now, genuinely, he fulfills the commandments, including those of helping others, even those that mandate humility. Just one thing: those who are opposite him - those who do not reach out to observe the Torah - leave him uncharacteristically unempathetic. I could do it, why can't they?

In the best of people, there can be a closed-mindedness, a constriction of sensibility, toward those who are not, objectively speaking, as good as they. Abraham taught: Those who are opposite you - opposite your truly best characteristics - deserve your generosity, too.

The lesson is relevant for the High Holy Days because all of us have at least one best characteristic. We all do at least something right. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur our job is not only to peer into the deepest depths: all those failings we know we have, and should work hard at correcting. Abraham teaches that we must also peer into our successes, our middot or characteristics that make us shine.

Abraham taught: That by which we truly distinguish ourselves must also be brought under the scalpel of introspection. There was something about Abraham's piety that was one notch higher. He was a paragon of kindness not only because it came naturally, or because it felt good. If that were all it was, Abraham would have rejoiced at the prospective fall of the Sodomites. Their defeat would have represented a success for his way of life - for the way of kindness.

But no.

Abraham embodied kindness not just for psychological reasons, not just because it felt right. If that had exhausted his stature, then he, too, could have let slip a negative comment about selfish people, such as those in Sodom and Gomorrah. But he didn't. This is because his piety was more than a psychological habit. It was a philosophical commitment.

And when one is commited philosophically, one is commited to those who represent the opposite of one's best values. One prays for them. Hopes for them. Helps them.

Even them.

JWR contributor Rabbi Hillel Goldberg is the executive editor of the Intermountain Jewish News in Denver; the halakhic advisor of the Mikveh Team of Torah Community Project; and author of The Fire Within. Send your comments by clicking here.


©1999, Rabbi Hillel Goldberg