Just released! Rabbi Noah Weinberg’s 48 Ways to Wisdom. Click here to order.
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 answer is 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?" But he rationalizes and says, "You don't understand. She asked me to take out the garbage. If I do it, who knows what she'll ask for next? This could go on forever!"
The good person takes out the garbage. You tell him, "I see that you're a good person."
He says, "No, I'm really not so good. Didn't you notice that when I took 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 about taking 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 always says that he's right. He doesn't bother trying to be good, so he never feels a struggle. He just assumes that he's good.
By contrast, the person who really tries to be good knows how tough a job it 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. Thank you for the opportunity to express my appreciation!"
Two Hearts: "Wants" and "Desires"
Way #23 is B'lave tov – literally "with a good heart."
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 healthy, versus you feel like chocolate cake.
- You want wisdom, versus you feel like watching TV.
"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 is actually the conflict between body and soul. Your eternal soul 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. It is drawn by the comfort of eating, sleeping, lusting.
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'm doing just fine the way I am!"
With every decision, the two hearts clash and create a dilemma. To be triumphant in the battle, you have to focus on your innate desire to be good. 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 which heart is talking at any one time.
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 engage in the pursuit 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 that stack of green 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 the conflict 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 usually the more comfortable choice.
The alarm clock goes off in the morning. You want to get out of bed and start your day. But you 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 or lose depends on 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'll be 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 "good." You have to investigate reliable sources, and then analyze which one best describes the human condition and reality.
In Gaza, the definition of "good" may be someone who is 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 an executive's job! I must be bad. I need a therapist!"
This feeling carries into the way we consume. Our CD collection, vacations and 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" by that which looks good to the fast-food/hi-tech/Hollywood segment of society? Or am I defining "good" by that which has deep meaning and makes a valuable contribution to humanity?
If we don't keep up our guard, we could end up rich-and-famous, 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?
The basic definition of "good" is mistaken.
In Judaism, the definition of good is found in the Torah. It spells out how a good person acts toward friends, family, and society as a whole. Goodness is kindness, justice, truth and loyalty to God.
So be careful and make sure you work out the right definition. Otherwise, you could end up 20 years down the road before realizing you bought a bad package.
Stand By Your Definition
Once you get your definition worked out, you have to stick with it. Others will always try to change your definition of "good," especially when it makes them uncomfortable about their own behavior. So you need conviction to stand by your definition, even if others mock you.
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, rich, have a beautiful spouse and marvelous kids. You're president of your synagogue, and have just been nominated to receive an honorary doctorate from Harvard. Life is grand!
Now you're traveling through the Far East with friends. One night, while your friends are out at a movie, the Secret Police come to your hotel room and say, "Your travel companions 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 that you finked on your friends. 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!
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 could do such a thing?
No. 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. (And even if you could somehow bring yourself to kill the children, you'd probably go back home and shoot yourself...)
Realize: If you are willing to give up your life to be "good," then there can be no higher goal in living than to be good.
So go out and live for it. Harness that force within you. Make goodness your goal in living. Be willing to give up everything. You're not doing anyone any favors by being good, you're simply doing what the "inner you" wants. When you do the right thing, you always win.
Every Human Being 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 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 its 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 your secret, innermost 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 souls desire to be like God Himself.
In fact, one of the mitzvot of the Torah 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.
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. It's a lot of hard work. But it's what we truly seek. So go for it. In the process, you'll become not just good, but great!
What Can I Do About It?
Ask any young person today:
"What are the chances of a worldwide nuclear war within the next 20 years?"
You'll get a range of answers. Some will say 90 percent, some 20 percent.
Either way that's horrifying!
So what are you going to do about it?
"Me? What can I do about it? The United Nations, the U.S. president – they're in charge! I'm only one person."
I ask you: If you knew that 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." That is the Jewish national mission of "Tikkun Olam," of repairing the world. If we shirk our responsibility, we'll have to answer for it.
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.
Why is a "Good Heart" a Way to Wisdom?
- Remind yourself daily that you want to be good. We get distracted by daily life and forget how much being good matters.
- Be aware of the conflict between what you deep-down "want," and the desires that get in the way.
- Once you understand the inner conflict, it will be a lot easier to make a conscious choice to use your capacity for good.
- Realize that being good is only doing yourself a favor. You want self respect more than anything else in life.
- Make sure to pursue what you objectively know is good, not what society tells you.
- If you want to be good, then seek out wisdom. Wisdom enables you to recognize "good" and make the right decisions.
- On any decision, ask: What does my soul want, versus what does my body want?
- Never say "I'm good enough already." You don't really mean it.
- If goodness is important enough to die for, then it makes sense to live for it.
- There is a mitzvah to be like God. It's what we all desire.
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Way #23: The Good Heart
Just released! Rabbi Noach Weinberg’s 48 Ways to Wisdom. Click here to order.