The human quest "to be good" drives virtually everything we do. Distinguish between "material good" and "spiritual good."
We all want to be good, but it's not easy. If you ask an evil person and a good person the same question: "Are you a good person?," who do you think is more likely to say, "I'm good"? The good one or the evil one?
The evil one! He could kick his own mother in the stomach and still think he's good. You say, "That's terrible! How could you do such a thing?" He rationalizes and says, "You don't understand. She asked me to take out the garbage. If I do it, who knows what else she'll ask for next? This could go on forever!"
As for the good person, he takes out the garbage. But if you would then tell him, "I see you're a good person," he says, "No, I'm really not so good. Didn't you notice that while I was taking out the garbage I kicked my mother in the stomach?"
"What are you talking about? I was watching and you didn't kick your mother in the stomach!"
"Well, I didn't actually kick her. But I was grumbling as I carried out the garbage. I wanted my mother to feel bad. I was in the middle of a good book, and if I don't register my protest, who knows – she might ask me to do it again tomorrow!"
Do you see the difference? The evil person will always say he's right. He doesn't bother trying to be good, so he never feels a struggle. He just assumes he's good.
Whereas the person who really tries to be "good" knows how tough the job is. And he's always striving for a higher level.
There's a third type: The fully righteous person, the Tzaddik. He takes out the garbage and says, "It's my pleasure, Mom. You work so hard to take care of us. So thank you for the opportunity to express my appreciation!"
Two Hearts: "Wants" and "Desires"
The struggle to do good stems from the two conflicting inclinations in every human being. A person has two hearts: one that loves to do the right thing, and one that prefers to be selfish. You need to develop an awareness of the struggle going on inside you. For example:
• You want to use your time effectively, versus you feel like procrastinating.
• You want to eat healthily, versus you feel like chocolate cake.
• You want wisdom, versus you feel like watching TV.
One heart loves to do the right thing. The other prefers to be selfish.
"Want" is for permanence. It is rooted in reality. "Desire" is for the moment, with little regard for future consequence. It is an escape.
This conflict is between your body and your soul. Your eternal soul seeks permanence. It wants to do all the right things: to love humanity, seek justice, be altruistic, sensible, honorable and responsible. Your soul strives to fulfill its potential.
Meanwhile, your body, which is destined for the grave, seeks satisfaction for the moment. Drawn by comfort and effortlessness, it wants to eat, to sleep, to lust.
You know it's not right to refuse to take out the garbage, and your heart really wants to be good. But your other heart, the heart of desire, would rather stay inside where it's warm, reading a book in comfort.
Even as you're reading this, your soul is nudging you: "Pay attention – this will make me great!" But your body contradicts: "All this hard work and concentration is too painful. I was doing just fine the way I was before!"
With every decision, the two hearts clash and create a dilemma.
With every decision, the two hearts clash and create a dilemma. To be triumphant in the battle to be good, you have to focus on your innate desire to be good. Remind yourself each morning that you want to be good, and don't let that consciousness lay fallow. Make it part of your mindset, and you'll see an observable effect throughout your day. You'll make more mature and effective decisions.
Distinguish Between the Two Hearts
It can be very confusing to sort out that which we desire from that which we want.
Ask someone: "Which is more important to you – happiness or money?"
"I'd rather be happy. Just give me basic food, clothing and shelter – and then I'll gladly take a lot of happiness! After all, what kind of fool wants to be a miserable millionaire?"
"Okay, give me a week and I guarantee to show you how to be happy."
"Well, that's an interesting offer. Maybe one day I'll consider it."
"Okay, I'll make you a deal: After one month, if you've increased your happiness, I'll give you a bonus of $10,000."
Now watch that guy run to you!
Why? Which is more important to him – happiness or money?
Of course, happiness is more important. But that's just the intellectual understanding of the soul. On the other hand, the body is distracted by the sight of those green stacks of bills!
Bodily desire confuses our thinking. Materialism can look so attractive that we become deluded into thinking that's what we really want!
Unless you make the effort to distinguish between your wants and your desires, and to clarify which aspect is influencing your actions, then you're likely to lose valuable opportunities to accomplish your goals.
Get in touch with what the conflict is by asking two simple questions: What do I want to do, versus what do I feel like doing? What you want to do is usually the right thing, whereas what you feel like doing is often what is the most comfortable thing.
The alarm clock goes off in the morning. You want to get out of bed and start your day. But you probably feel like hitting the "snooze button," and sleeping late. It's a tug of war. Getting out of bed becomes a moral dilemma!
Whether you win and or lose depends upon which voice is the loudest at the moment of decision: the voice of want, or the voice of desire.
Once you're aware of the conflict and remember that you're struggling, you're able to listen more carefully to the voice of the good heart, and dismiss the voice of the selfish heart.
A proper definition of "good" is the starting point of everything you do in life. Obviously you can't just invent your own definition of what "good" is. You have to investigate reliable sources, and then analyze which one best describes the human condition and reality.
Be careful! If you don't work out the definition for yourself, you'll end up with someone else's idea of good! You don't want to be 20 years down the road and realize you bought a bad package.
Unless you work out the definition, you'll end up with someone else's idea of good!
In Gaza, the definition of "good" may be someone whose willing to strap a bomb to his belly and detonate it in a crowded Israeli market.
A common Western definition of "good" is financial success. People become pulverized by depression because they're not successful. "What's wrong with me, I can't get a job! I must be bad. Get
me a therapist!"
This feeling carries into the way we consume. Our CD collection, our carpets, our fancy cars are one part convenience, two parts status. We want to show off that we fit society's idea of "good." (Politely, of course, so people shouldn't think we're barbarians!)
Always ask yourself: Am I defining "good" as that which looks good to the fast-food-Internet-Hollywood segment of society, or am I defining "good" as that which has real meaning, a deep message, and makes a valuable contribution to society?
If we don't keep up our guard, then we could end up like those rich-and-famous who are hooked on drugs and plagued by depression. Why is the typical image of a movie-star one who is embroiled in legal disputes, can't keep a marriage together, and spends countless hours in psychoanalysis?
In Judaism, the definition of good is found in the Torah. It spells out how a good person acts toward his friends, family, and society as a whole.
So keep your definitions straight. And be careful. Society's definition could end up being your death sentence.
Stand By Your Definition
Once you get your definition down, then you have to stick with it wherever you go, no matter what you do. Others will always try to change your definition of "good," especially when it makes them feel bad about themselves. But you must stand by your own definition, even when others mock you for doing so.
Why does someone play Russian roulette? Because he's afraid of being jeered, of being called a coward. But who's the real coward? The one without the courage to stand up to those jeers! In the end, instead of living as a coward, he dies as a coward! The ultimate irony: perception defeats reality!
Don't let go of what you know.
Being Good Is More Important Than Life Itself
Imagine you're a successful surgeon. You're famous, you're rich, you have a beautiful spouse and marvelous kids. You're president of your synagogue, and you've just been nominated to receive an honorary doctorate from Harvard University. Life is grand!
Now you're traveling through the Far East with some friends. One night, while your friends are out at a movie, the Secret Police come to your hotel room and say, "Your friends have been identified as dangerous spies. Tell us where they are – or we'll kill you!"
Uh-oh. What do you do?
Of course, turning over your friends is a terrible thing to do. On the other hand, you don't want to die – and nobody will ever know you finked on your friends. (The Secret Police certainly won't advertise the episode!) You can still be a successful surgeon, still have your beautiful family, still be rich and famous – and still make it home in time for the Harvard graduation!
Nobody will ever know you finked on your friends.
What do you do?
Now let's up the ante. What if the Secret Police asked you to kill 1,000 children? "Kill 1,000 children and you can go back to the States to your beautiful life." Do you think you'd ever be able to do such a thing?
No. We simply don't have what it takes to be evil. (And even if you could bring yourself to kill the children. you'd probably go back home and shoot yourself.)
This scenario reveals something very deep in the makeup of every human being: Being good is so important that we'd even be willing to die for it.
Even though this scenario is a bit extreme, it elucidates a crucial principle: If you are willing to give up your life to be "good," then there can be no higher goal in living than being good!
Now go out and live for it! Harness that force within you!
Pursue wisdom to understand how to be good. Make goodness your goal in living. Be willing to give up everything. Others might call you a fool, but you always win when you do the right thing. You're not doing anyone any favors by being good, you're simply doing what the "inner you" wants.
Every Human Wants to be Great
Our desire to be good is really just the tip of the iceberg. Actually, all of us strive to go beyond "good" – and become "great."
Nobody wants to be average. Try saying, "I want to be a mediocre." You can't get the words out! Because we want to be great, not just good.
Would you want to be the person to discover the cure for cancer or eliminate the threat of nuclear war? Of course! We would all love to rid the world of it's problems and unite humanity in peace and harmony. That is the Jewish concept of the Messiah. He will put the world back together.
I once asked a class, "Tell me honestly. In the secret, innermost part of your heart, do you harbor the desire to be the Messiah himself?"
The entire class raised their hands.
Now here's a deep spiritual secret: The soul, the divine spark within each of us, craves to be united with the source of all life – the Almighty God. And for that reason, every human being, underneath it all, would not even feel satisfied being the Messiah. Our soul desires to be like God Himself.
So why don't we aim for it?
Not because we don't want to change the world. But because the effort seems too great.
The Torah, our Instructions for Living, provides a way to work toward this. One of the 613 mitzvot is to be like God, to emulate His ways.
We each have the potential to make a significant contribution to society. The Sages teach that everyone is supposed to say, "The whole world was made for me!" This does not mean that you can plunder the property of others. Rather, every individual is responsible for the world. Act accordingly – you're here to straighten it out.
It's a lot hard work. But it's what we truly seek. And in the process, you're going to become not just good, but great!
What Can I Do About It?
Ask any young person today:
"What are the chances of a worldwide atomic war within the next 20 years?"
You'll get a range of answers. Some will say 90%, some 20%.
So what are you going to do about it?
"Me? What can I do about it? The president is in charge! But I'm only one person. Who am I?"
In Judaism, we say that if you knew the Almighty Himself was helping you, what would you do about it?
Well, here's good news: God is behind you. God says, "If you try, I'll help you. I want you to straighten out the world."
Judaism says it's an obligation to become great. That is our national mission of "Tikkun Olam," of repairing the world. If we shirk our responsibility, we'll have to answer for it one day.
In Judaism, there's no giving up. You want to be great, you can be great, and you have to be great. So get out there and slug. Harness your powerful desire for greatness. It's leading you whether you like it or not.
Make the right effort, and God will certainly help you achieve.
Published: January 11, 2000