There is good news and bad news in this week’s Torah portion. The parashah begins, “If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments there will be”…. blessing. That’s the good news. The text continues, “But, if you do not obey My laws and observe My statutes”…..then all hell will break loose against you. I’m paraphrasing, but that’s the gist of it. The best news is that both promises are conditional. Blessing or curse – they depend in large part on what we choose to do or not do in this life
I go along with the notion that there are always consequences to our actions, but there is little overt reason to believe that such a mechanistic system of reward and punishment is operating in the universe. As the Psalmist rightly points out at length, the righteous do suffer and the wicked seem to get away with murder. For that reason, the Reform Movement eliminated the second of the traditional three paragraphs of the Shema from our prayerbooks, the passage from the Book of Deuteronomy that posits this automatic do good/get good, do bad/get bad theory of existence. Life really doesn’t work that way, but - while goodness in and of itself carries no automatic guarantee of immediate reward - that has never disqualified it as a worthy goal towards which humanity might strive. That is, it seems, until now.
The International Press is reporting that populist movements around the world are targeting and defaming those they label as “do-gooders.” Here, Salvini rails against the “Buonisti.” Social media in Germany attacks “Dirty leftist do-gooders.” Similar slogans are appearing in Spain, England and Australia. They seek to make the word ‘good’ a pejorative and those who profess to act on its principles enemies of the people. The very concept of goodness itself is under attack.
Rabbinic psychology posits the notion of a yester tov and a yester ha-rah – the inclination to do good and the inclination to do evil. Both exist within us and both are required. The rabbis teach that the yestser ha-rah, however, is a “necessary evil,” for without it no person would have children, build a house or engage in commerce. They were describing what we might call necessary primal energy, and consequently that makes human life a continual struggle between the two yetsers. The antidote, what keeps the yester ha-rah in check is Torah.
In other words, Judaism aspires to fortify and inspire within us the impulse to do good, to incline towards the yetser tov. That would make us a people of ‘do-gooders.’ The traditional translation of the word mitzvah is ‘good deed.’ We are commanded to perform 100 mitzvahs a day. A mensch is a person who does good to and for others.
Foundational to the Judeo-Christian ethic is the assertion that life is a continual choice between good and evil, blessing and curse, and we human beings are always choosing creatures. We read on Yom Kippur from the Book of Deuteronomy: “I set before you this day life and good, death and evil. Choose life if you and your descendents would live.” And in the Books of Micah and Isaiah: “It has been told to you what is good and what the Lord requires of you. Only to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.”
It’s not that complicated. The Torah makes it very clear. The opposite of do-gooder is evil-doer and those that reject the very concept of doing good will bring with them only destruction and curse. So I say, Viva i Buonisti! Seek to be counted in their company.