Choosing Good

By Steve Freedman

If you had to choose a single attribute to bestow upon your child, would you choose happiness, success, or goodness? Our Jewish narrative places goodness at a premium. I suspect, and others have suggested, however, that more people choose happiness, and do not rank goodness first because it is assumed that people are inherently good.

This is not true. Observe any toddler and you can see that goodness is not innate. It comes by example, and with much practice, as anything else we do well in life. Dennis Prager, a leading Jewish radio talk show host and thinker, has spoken about this topic at length. He says that when it comes to children, we confuse goodness with innocence. Adults often assume that they are good too, because they do not steal or murder, or because they do not cheat. “Really, this just makes a person neither a criminal nor a cheater – it doesn’t make them good,” Prager says.

Goodness requires practice, effort, and self-awareness, and I believe many more of us should rank it as the most important attribute in ourselves and our children!

Our Jewish narrative is clear when it speaks about goodness: God created the world, the world is good, and people, created in His image, should rule over it with the godly attributes of justice and mercy. Of utmost importance is how we treat the powerless, the poor, the weak, and the infirm.

Unfortunately, we do not always consider thoughtfully the needs of others with the attributes of compassion, fairness or justice. Developing one’s own sense of gratitude, and pausing to express appreciation for all that we have and are able to do on a daily basis, go a long way towards establishing the ability to extend ourselves to others and lead a life of goodness. Without this moral compass, how can we otherwise live a meaningful life?

Hillel Day School’s core values, based on Torah, are a blueprint for developing goodness – we believe study is sacred, we elevate the mundane through ritual, we feel a deep connection to other Jews, we partner with God to repair the world, and we emphasize respect. We hold our students accountable for their behavior.

In order for goodness to stick, parents and all adults also need to act with these same attributes. We need adults who insist that children use manners and polite language, and we need children to observe adults acting respectfully. We need adults who foster compassion for others by giving their children opportunities to perform acts of kindness, and to give tzedakah.

In this way, happiness, rather than holding the top spot on the list of attributes, becomes a joyful byproduct of living a life of goodness, informed by the moral choices we make. Research shows this: the contributions we make to others, and the quality of our relationships is what leads to lasting happiness.

So as Jews, while we want to present Jewish living as engaging, joyful, and fun, we have a collective obligation to be the living examples of what it means to be good – to bring justice, mercy and compassion into the world. This is what is expected of any Jew – and we all have a stake in this endeavor.

This article was originally posted on the Hillel Day School Head of School Blog. It is reposted with permission.

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