Friday, December 7, 2018 / 29 Kislev 5779
Summary: Rabbi Kosak reminds us that our good deeds endure in unexpected ways.
Old Mitzvahs, the Light of Chanukkah and the Delayed Response of the Universe
“No good deed goes unpunished.”
Is there anyone alive who hasn’t entertained that notion for at least a dejected moment?
Perhaps in an act of friendship, you’ve walking a friend’s dog the last few times that they went on vacation. They never bother thanking you, and you don’t really worry about it—after all, you weren’t looking for thanks when you first offered to help. But then, when you tell them you can’t help them out on their upcoming vacation, they get angry with you. Kind of unfair, right?Rather than being thanked for your past generosity, your neighbor has come to expect your gift of help (that, after all, is what we mean by gemilut chasidim—giving someone something to which they have no claim as a simple act of kindness).
At times like that, we can probably all be excused for thinking that no good deed goes unpunished, or at least unanswered. Yet even if you’ve entertained that thought, wisdom dictates that it’s best to let it go and move on. When we are at our best, though, we don’t even allow another’s ingratitude to weigh on our souls.
There’s a profound example of this in the sedra, or the weekly Torah portion. At the end of the previous reading, Joseph had been stuck in jail, wrongly accused. Despite suffering one raw deal after another, the Torah never depicts any bitterness on Joseph’s part. Instead, we find that he applies himself to his situation and becomes a model prisoner. He even interprets the dreams of his fellow inmates; all he asks in return is to have his good deeds remembered. “Only remember me when things go well for you, and do me this kindness—tell Pharaoh about me so as to get me out of this place.” (Genesis 40:14).
Of course, no such thing happens. After his release, the wine steward promptly forgets about Joseph and his predicament. It is not until this week’s reading, after Pharaoh has some disturbing dreams which no one can solve, that the wine steward suddenly recalls his commitment to Joseph. Pharaoh grants Joseph a furlough from prison; on hearing how well Joseph interprets his dreams and provides a life-saving plan for Egypt in the face of a coming famine, Joseph rises to viceroy of Egypt—the second in command.
It is comforting to imagine that our refusal to believe that no good deed goes unpunished would lead us all to a similar outcome as Joseph. But what if it does? What if training ourselves to reject bitterness actually changes the outcome of our lives? What if living without expectations attracts more blessings to us?
Some people seem better up to that task than others. Nature seems to grant some of us an easy disposition that allows us to live in such an untarnished manner. My Nana Pauline was one of those lucky ones. Still, even if we weren’t given such a temperament at birth, most of us can choose to earn that attitude. Nurturing an attitude of gratitude is a spiritual discipline. It’s a choice.
A perspective that can help us in this practice is expanding our time horizons. So often in life, there’s a delayed response—both to our good deeds as well as to our evil doings. I suspect that’s a lesson which Michael Cohen is finally coming to appreciate. Delayed response—things unwind on God’s time, not ours. So patience can enable us to avoid bitterness.
In an almost trivial way, events conspired to remind me of this truth. More than a year ago, I donated some money from my discretionary fund to purchase some solar lamps for the Ugandan Jewish community (the Abuyadaya). One of the leaders of their community was a few years behind me in rabbinical school; because of that friendship, I’ve always had a connection to the fate of our Ugandan brothers and sisters.
That solar lamp mitzvah opportunity came to me from Joanie Levine, a dedicated congregant at P’nai Or, which is Portland’s only Jewish renewal congregation. I wrote the check, and never really thought about it again. It was a small enough sum of money. Yet just this week, Joanie forwarded me two thank you notes from some recipients of those solar lamps.
One came from a mother of three young children who are studying at a Hadassah primary school near Mbale, Uganda. They received a D-Lite Solar Lantern last year. This family, a single mother and five children, are barely scraping by. They were evicted from their previous home, and are currently living in a home slated for demolition. Despite those hardships, they are so grateful because the lantern has allowed the children to study at night. Their education gives the entire family hope for a better future.
Maybe it’s just faith, but I believe this sort of delayed response is wired into the universe. There’s a Jewish teaching that the only possession we take with us when we leave this world is the record of our good deeds. Old mitzvahs live on. Most of the time, our human eyes can’t readily discern the truth of this. That’s why we sometimes imagine that good deeds never go unpunished. Yet occasionally the universe sends us back a love letter, a sign that each of our actions ripples across time, touching lives we never imagine.
We kindle our Chanukkah candles in the darkest time of the year as a sign of hope and the miraculous. That alone gives us hope. Looking at the stars, perhaps we can all be encouraged that our nights are lit up by stars long gone. And by remembering the insight of the psalmist who wrote that the human soul is God’s lantern. Ner Ado-nai nishmat adam.
Let’s all spread a little light.
Chag urim sameach,
SHABBAT TABLE TALK
- When have you learned, long after the fact, of the impact of some good deed you did?
- Have you ever contacted an old teacher to say thanks? What was that like?
- Do you think that it is our impatience that sometimes makes us feel ungrateful?
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