Some thoughts for Rosh Hashanah:
If we took a vote on what trait we human beings most value, goodness would undoubtedly win. Certainly goodness is the trait that we most want everyone else to possess.
But if we say we value goodness above everything else — and surely Judaism does — why aren’t there more good people?
A big reason is that it is easier to value other things — including, and especially, positive things — more than goodness. So it’s much easier to be just about anything rather than good.
It’s easier to be religious than to be good.
The history of all religions is replete with examples of individuals who seem religious, yet who are not good and are sometimes downright evil. The most obvious examples today are found within Islam. But Judaism, Christianity and all other religions have provided examples. It was mean-spirited observant Jews (observant of laws between man and God) whom the Prophets most severely criticized. God doesn’t want your ritual observances, Isaiah said in God’s name, if you don’t treat people properly. And too much of European Christian history produced people who valued faith over goodness.
It’s easier to be progressive than to be good.
Just as it is easier to be religious than to be good, it is easier to hold progressive positions than to be good. Too many religious people have equated religious piety with goodness, and too many believers in today’s dominant religion, progressivism, equate left-wing positions with goodness. I saw this as a graduate student in the 1970s, when the most progressive students were so often personally mean and dishonest. They seemed to believe that protesting against war and racism defined the good human being — so how they treated actual people didn’t really matter. Defining goodness as having progressive social positions has helped produce a lot of mean-spirited and narcissistic individuals with the “right” social positions.
It’s easier to be brilliant (and successful) than to be good.
Ask your children — whether they are 5 or 45 — what they think you most want them to be: happy, good, successful or smart.
Parents have told me for decades how surprised they were that their children did not answer “good.” One reason is that so many parents have stressed brilliance (and the success that brilliance should lead to) over goodness. Thus, many parents brag about their child’s brilliance rather than about their goodness. How closely do parents monitor their children’s character as compared to how closely they monitor their children’s grades?
Brilliance is probably the most overrated human attribute. And there is absolutely no connection between it and goodness.
It’s easier to care about the earth than to be good.
Everyone who cares about the next generation of human beings cares about the earth. But we live at a time when many care about the earth more than they care about human beings. That is why, for example, the environmentalist movement in the West persisted in banning DDT, despite the fact that not using DDT to destroy the Anopheles mosquito has resulted in millions of Africans dying of malaria.
Similarly, it is a lot easier to fight carbon emissions than to fight evil.
It’s easier to love animals than to love people.
The secular West has produced many people who love animals more than human beings. Ask people who love their pet if they would first try to save a beloved dog or cat that was drowning or a human being they did not know who was also drowning. If my asking this question for over 30 years is any indication, a significant percentage would answer that they would first try to save their dog or cat. Why? Because, they say, they love their pet and they don’t love the stranger.
Contrary to what is widely believed, love of animals does not translate into love of people. While those who are cruel to animals will likely be cruel to people, the converse is not true. Love of animals has little to do with, and can often substitute for, love of people.
It’s easier to love humanity than to love your neighbor.
The greatest moral teaching of the Torah is, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” not “Love humanity [or “all people”] as yourself.” Why? Because it’s easy to love humanity; it’s much tougher to love our neighbor.
It’s easier to be intellectual and cultured than to be good.
The most cultured nation in the world created the Holocaust. The nation that produced Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Schumann and Wagner also produced the Nazis and Auschwitz. For those of us whose lives have been immeasurably enriched by the art and culture produced by Germans, that is a sobering fact.
It’s easier to intend to do good than to do good.
It is a truism that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Nearly all the evils of the 20th century, the bloodiest century in history, were committed not by sadists, but by people with good intentions.
That is why, when it comes to how we treat our fellow human beings, only our behavior — not our intention, and not how much we feel for others — matters.
The primacy of behavior over feelings may well be Judaism’s greatest message.
A happy and healthy new year to all my readers.
Dennis Prager will once again be conducting High Holy Day services in Los Angeles. For more information, visit www.pragerhighholidays.net