Why Good People Do Good Things


“Before you begin scrambling up the ladder of success, make sure that it is leaning against the right building.”

Steven Covey

The Torah abounds with tales of sibling rivalry that run the gamut from latent hatred to outright murder, and so in Vayeitze, we have a refreshing break as we read the account of sisterly love exhibited between Rachel and Leah.   We all know of Rachel’s act of self-sacrifice in favor of her older sister, Leah, when she switched identities under the marriage canopy (and the marital bed) to save Leah from the humiliation of having to marry Jacob’s immoral and depraved older brother, Esau.  

Less known is the story where Leah, pregnant with her 7th child, prayed to give birth to a girl and not bear Jacob another son.   Leah knew that there were to be Twelve Tribes.   When she realized that she was pregnant, Jacob already had ten sons (six from Leah and two from each of the handmaids, Bilhah and Zilpah). Concerned that if she gave birth to another boy, who would be Jacob’s 11th son, at the very best, Rachel could have only one son to complete the destined twelve. To spare Rachel the humiliation of being considered “less than a handmaiden,” Leah prayed for her sister. One account is that God switched the gender of her child from male to female, which resulted in Leah giving birth to Dina. There is a similar account that Leah was pregnant with Joseph and Rachel was pregnant with Dina at the time, and so God switched them in utero – reminiscent of Rachel’s action many years before.

How did these two sisters muster the strength to forbear their deepest desires? In deceiving Jacob, Rachel could have no assurance that she would ever marry the love of her life. At best, she had would have to share her husband. And in trying to avert an imbalance and emotional devastation to Rachel, Leah essentially gave up the chance to be the mother of another one of the tribes, as well as trying to curry any additional favor with Jacob. In exercising such powerful restraint for the sake of the other, both sisters teach us the lessons of altruism.

The Kindness of Strangers

Every day, it seems, the news bears tales of horror, acts of violence and evil unleashed by man upon his fellow. It is often the case, however, that there are heroes that emerge in these stories, and not just people trying to save loved ones, but bystanders who risk life and limb to help total strangers. Why?

To the “survival of the fittest” mentality, altruism has to be an embarrassment. That is why science tries to explain it away as a vestige of a survival tactic when we lived in small groups and tribes of closely related people. Or, the pundits say, altruism is ego-based and self-serving; in that we do kind acts in the hopes of reciprocity, to elicit the admiration of others, or getting brownie points for heaven.    

Pure Altruism – It’s an Empathy Kind of Thing

In his article, “Why Do People Do Good Things? The Puzzle of Altruism,” Dr. Steven Taylor pondered his motivation for carefully removing a spider he saw in his bathtub when he could have easily flushed it down the drain.   Obviously, there was no social or self-serving benefit to saving a hapless arachnid, and so he discusses the origin of what he terms, “pure altruism:”

I think this simple act was motivated by empathy. I empathized with the spider as another living being, who was entitled to stay alive just as I was. And I believe that empathy is the root of all pure altruism. Sometimes empathy is described as a cognitive ability to see the world through another person’s eyes, but I think it’s actually much more than that. In my view, the capacity for empathy shows that, in essence, all human beings – and in fact all living beings—are interconnected.

When we feel this larger sense of connection and interrelatedness (even with things that seem tiny and insignificant), we respond to the suffering of others with altruistic acts, because they are no longer the “other.”   Says Taylor, “We can sense their suffering because, in a sense, we are them. And because of this common identity, we feel the urge to alleviate other people’s suffering – and to protect and promote their well-being —just as we would our own.”

And so the more inclusive of “other” we are in our network of connection, the more extensive is our sense of empathy, which impacts how we behave, from scary spiders and scary people to our loved ones and people just like us. In other words, in the world of action, pure altruism is “other-focused,” but it originates from the inner sense of kinship, and a desire to ease pain.

Gratitude Is Also “Other-Focused”

Says my friend, Megan McDonough, “Gratitude is always a function of being in a relationship with something else. There’s you, and then there’s the person, place, or thing that you are grateful for. That’s why it’s known as ‘other-praising.’ Giving thanks draws you out of yourself and into an appreciative connection.”

The First Thanksgiving – and It Wasn’t the Pilgrims

Leah was the first person in recorded history to say, “thank you” and she named her forth son, Yehuda, from the word, “hoda’ah,” which means, “to thank.” Since names convey spiritual essence, the Jewish people (Yehudim) should realize that gratitude comprises their core component of being. Furthermore, the very existence and makeup of the Twelve Tribes came about through the altruism of two sisters, each motivated by empathy and wanting to ease the suffering of the other.

Stairway to Heaven

In Vayeitze, we also read the story of Jacob’s ladder, reaching from earth to heaven. Let us build our ladders: one side, “Gratitude” and on the other “Empathy.” Let the rungs between them be the steps of compassion, connection, and kindness. Let us lean our ladders against the right wall, climb the ladder of spiritual success, and bring heaven down to earth for a global transformation. May you and every living creature and all things on this planet be at ease, may there be an end to suffering and may there be only peace.    








The Path of Restraint: Let It Be


“Sometimes nothing is the hardest thing to do. – Tyrrion Lannister”
― George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones

It was towards the end of a weeklong training for facilitators of Positive Psychology workshops, and we were participating in a group exercise. We all stood in a circle, and in the middle of the floor were scattered a few dozen cards, face down. Every person picked a card at random, and in turn read out loud the message on the back. Each card described a different Signature Strength in a poignant but humorous way, and having been together for days, where we learned together and shared deeply, as each person read his or her card, it became obvious that the so-called random selection was right on target.   I smiled when I saw my card – “Gratitude;” after all it’s in one of my top 5 Signature Strengths. When I read the card out loud, I added a quip of my own. After all, another one of my strengths is “Humor.”  

When I came home and told my husband about some of the highlights of the week, I talked about this exercise. Why was it, I wondered, in a group of about 50 or so people, there were only two people who went off script – me as well as the only other attorney in the room. Was that a coincidence? Most attorneys are wordsmiths, and we are adept at playing with words to shape reality. It didn’t occur to me not to inject my personality into the task, rather than letting the words speak for themselves. Has this trait become my second nature? Is this a good thing?

“These other students,” asked my husband, “the ones who just read the cards – they’re spiritual people, aren’t they?”  “What do you mean?” I bristled. After all, “Spirituality” happens to be another one of my Signature Strengths – number three to be precise. “Do you think they were all in flowing robes and yoga pants while we showed up in Brooks Brother Suits, briefcases in tow?” “Maybe they just have more humility than you” he replied, “maybe they approached it with simplicity.”

He had me there. Years ago, when I was a student in a certain training program, I was always clashing with the director, and before he threw me out of his course, he chastised me with these words: “You always make things so damn hard.” I took it as a compliment, a badge of honor. So I’m not a simple contented cow, or someone who just follows orders, I thought, I’m complex!   Said the late great Oliver Wendell Holmes, however, “For the simplicity on this side of complexity, I wouldn’t give you a fig. But for the simplicity on the other side of complexity, for that, I would give you anything I have.”

Of all of the founding father and mothers, Isaac was always the hardest for me to relate to. In all of the Isaac stories, he is passive, he complies with the decisions others make for him, and we don’t get the story from his perspective.   The only narrative where Isaac plays an active role is in the middle of the Torah portion, Toldot, where Isaac is described as a farmer and a digger of wells – mostly trying to re-open the wells dug by his father, Abraham.   

Abraham used his signature characteristic of chesed (kindness), bestowing his open-hearted generosity indiscriminately to others in an outward dynamic that ultimately changed the world. In contrast, Isaac was insular, a tent dweller, a tiller of the soil, a scholar, who had one student only – his son Jacob. Where Abraham went wide, Isaac went deep. Where Abraham was boundless, Isaac was bounded – literally so. While I could respect Isaac, he was never a role model for me.

The words most commonly associated with Isaac are: “strict justice, severity, strength, humility, introversion, etc.” I read an article, however, that used the word “restraint” to describe Isaac.   Suddenly, I saw Isaac in a different light. What if exercising restraint is allowing things to be as they are meant to me, not exerting dominion and control, and letting things unfold naturally and organically?

What if all along Isaac was not passive, but was exercising the strength of restraint, and was willing to allow God’s plan to unfold – instead of thinking he knew better.

Being Right Versus Being Happy 

There is a saying, “you can be right, or you can be happy.” This suggests, however, that forgoing being right, or being number one, is a concession, a sacrifice whereby outwardly one backs off or says the right thing, but inwardly still believes that he or she is right. There, restraint is repression, a temporary cease-fire in the war of differing opinions.

What if we could exercise restraint – not to be self-righteous or to be the bigger person – but to get really curious?   Restraint allows us to discover new things about ourselves – like what’s on the other side of this issue that you have held onto for so long to the point of self-identity? Who could you be if you let that idea go, or gave people the space to be who they are without negative judgments? What if you drilled deeply into your own well?  

What Love Asks of Us

In his book, Journey of the Heart, John Wellwood describes how intimate relationships ask us to give up something we cherish dearly, such as our way of staying securely defended.   When we give up what makes us feel personally safe and comfortable, and relax the demands and expectation we place on our partners, we can shift our focus to the concerns of the other as well as the needs of the relationship as a whole. When we stop being territorial, we no longer are the sole center of our lives. And that is the key to feeling happy and alive.

The best way to deal with negatively is to replace it with curiosity.   Because on the other side of anxiety and negative judgments is seeing others more clearly – and ultimately ourselves.   Says Wellwood, “Recognizing the absolute significance of this other that we love, who is wholly different from us, expands our horizons and opens us more fully to life as a whole.” But we have to get out of the way. Exercise a little restraint.   It’s not that hard. Let it be simple.



The Measure of an Extraordinary Life


“We contain multitudes.”

Walt Whitman

Many years ago, I was having Friday night dinner at a friend’s house, and when I arrived, I was taken aback momentarily, when I saw her sitting on the couch, an open Chumash (the Five Books of Moses) on her lap, with tears streaming down her face. “Tova!” I exclaimed as I rushed to her side, “What’s wrong?” “Sarah Emeinu (Sarah, our foremother) just died” was her simple response, as she had just finished reading the account of Sarah’s death in the Torah portion, Chayei Sarah. Ironically, Chayei Sarah, which means, “the Life of Sarah” opens with news of Sarah’s death.  

Now my friend had grown up in a household where Torah was in her mother’s milk, and no doubt she had read these very passages dozens of times. Seeing her reaction, however, of unfeigned emotion and personal connection to the written text, the terms “life” and “death” were irrelevant. If Sarah was not a disconnected personage from the ancient past, but a living presence to relate to, who was she?

And Behind Every Successful Man…

Like Abraham, Sarah endured many trials and hardships. Like Abraham, she embodied the quality of chesed, (kindness) and lived with selfless generosity. And like Abraham, she was fueled by a sense of mission and purpose, knowing she was destined in some fashion to mother a nation that would transform the world.

But where Sarah was greater than Abraham (and our tradition says that she was an even greater prophetess) was in her ability to harmonize different qualities, and to draw from herself, that which needed to be expressed. And so, at times, she served the moment by being expansive, wide open and self-sacrificing. For the sake of ensuring a legacy, for example, she could draw another woman into her husband’s bed. Other times, that mission required her to draw boundaries with a love that was fierce and protective, and with judgment unclouded by sentiment. And so Sarah saw clearly when that same woman needed to be ejected from the family circle. Simply, Sarah knew when to be what, and so in addition to their shared values, Sarah’s grounded feminine complexity afforded Abraham the luxury to pursue a life of singular virtue.  

What is the Measure of a Life?

Instead of telling us that Sarah died at the age 127, her lifespan is described in a curious manner: “Sarah’s lifetime was one hundred years, twenty years, and seven years.” Rashi, the medieval commentator, explains that Sarah’s life had three stages: 100 and 20 and 7; where at age 100, she had the beauty of a 20-year old, and at age 20, she had the innocence of a seven-year-old. In an article entitled, “Chayei Sarah: What Makes For a Successful Life?” Rabbi David Fohrman mentions a teaching of Rabbi Soloveitchik, that discusses the different stages of the maturation and aging process, where our priorities and values change, and we begin to wrestle with the existential question of life, such as what do we stand for, what are the values we want to impart, what is our legacy, etc.

One way, the “ordinary way,” is to go through this process in a compartmentalized fashion; as we pass through each stage, we leave it behind. Like shutting a mental gate behind us, the attitude is, “that was then, and this is now” and we do not look back and embrace life with a sense of wholeness. And so what Sarah did was “extraordinary,” in that she took with her all of the exuberance and enthusiasm of her youth into her adult years, and by infusing and integrating the past into her present, she continued to build a congruent life at every stage, crafting a lifetime of experience and dimension

Unlike most people who disdain the innocence of youth as childish and immature, Sarah never lost the quality of being open, curious and filled with wonder, even as she transitioned into adulthood, and beyond. Jewish tradition teaches that when God spoke to Abraham and directed him with the famous command, “Lech Lecha,” to leave his home and all of the trappings of comfort and success and to go forth into the wilderness, Abraham didn’t exactly hop to it right away. Instead, he came home and asked Sarah (who was 65 years old at the time) what they should do, and it was Sarah who said, in effect, “Are you kidding? What are you waiting for? Let’s go!” As she went through the successive phases of life, she fused all of her experiences together, each step being enriched by the previous one, in a seamless and harmonious integration. This quality allowed her to bring forth whichever aspect of her multitudinous self that would best serve the needs of her marriage, her mission, or the moment.

Carrying it Forward

There is a Jewish saying, that when a righteous person leaves this world, a new one comes into it. At the same time that Sarah died, hundreds of miles away, Rebecca was being born. Despite growing up in a culture of selfishness and dishonesty, Rebecca was the polar opposite. Like Abraham who rejected the social mores of his surroundings, Rebecca was an outlier, attracting the notice of Abraham’s servant, Eliezar, when she single-handedly drew jug after heavy jug of water to slake the thirst of the camels of a stranger. Rebecca’s virtues of sensitivity, kindness, and selfless service demonstrated the values that were to console a family mourning the loss of Sarah, made her a natural fit to be Isaac’s beloved wife for a lifetime, and positioned her to take a proactive role in furthering the spiritual mission of the Jewish people.

But like Sarah, Rebecca knew when to be what. The brave child, who didn’t hesitate for a moment to leave the house of her deceitful father, gave her the strength and wiles as a wife and mother to ensure that the Jewish spiritual legacy was placed in the right hands – even when her husband was too blind to see the truth. The measure of a good life is not in excising the painful or bad parts of your life, or to think of your life as separate and disconnected stages, but in allowing everything to serve. Good values certainly form the basis for good marriages, good relationships, and good lives; when we can live out the years of our life from the fullest of our whole being, however, it can be more than good – it can be extraordinary.