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Thoughts About a “Good Life”
Last week I was with a group of people when the question went round of how each of us defined a “good life.” I reached into my pocket of cliches and tossed a few out, such as “feeling needed, feeling productive, feeling I’ve helped people.”
While my answers were not invalid, they had the substance of a Hallmark Card. They were simplistic and cloying (or as the British might say, twee).
Hence this post.
With more time to think about what makes a good life, I turned toward a treasure trove of wisdom that was right in front of me. The wisdom of the Jewish sages.
The Jewish sages had much to say about what makes a good life. Their advice is specific and timeless. Below are a few of my favorites, how I interpret them, and how I aspire to apply them to myself.
The Entrance Exam
The sages said that when you die you’ll be asked some questions at the threshold of Heaven:
1) Were you honest in your business dealings?
2) Did you set aside time to study Torah?
3) Did you build a family?
They imagined a few other question, but ones that seem “squishier” to me–––“Did you look forward to salvation?” and “Did you debate wisely?”
Honest in business dealings means more than just avoiding fraud and cheating. It means being trustworthy. That if a deal you made turns out to be unfair to the other party, you’ll adjust it unilaterally. That you can be relied upon to follow through on what you commit to. That you can keep a secret.
Studying Torah is one way to study ethics. This question means that you should be intentional about refreshing your moral code. The Torah, or Old Testament, is full of stories that show people failing to do what’s right and suffering the consequences. But also of people persevering and ultimately being rewarded.
I’ll never forget attending an African Methodist Episcopal Church in Baltimore and listening to a brilliant sermon on the story of Job, where the preacher emphasized the end of Job’s travails when God restores, and even increases, the elements of Job’s former good life.
Building a family meant having children. It’s the Torah’s first commandment (mitzvah)–––“be fruitful and multiply.” But it’s followed by many other commandments to teach your children ethics, both by word and deed. Being a good role model. And for that, it’s not necessary to be a parent. You could be a cousin or an uncle or aunt, by blood, marriage, or honor, and still fulfil this virtue.
Responsibility to the World
The sages said that it’s not your responsibility to heal the world, but you still have to do your share. They also said that if you save a life, you save a world. It’s easy enough to conclude that problems are so immense that there’s no use in chipping away at them. Or that there’s so much evidence of human corruption and moral frailty, that it’s a hopeless, Sisyphus-like task to try to heal the world. I’ve felt that way about the world and sometimes even about myself.
But the lesson in the sages’ words is that you should never give up, that even small acts of loving-kindness are worthwhile. They are not only worthwhile in themselves, but they can have unintended “ripple” effects that “save” a life, meaning that your action might be responsible for someone creating their own world of goodness and so on and so on. It’s an amazing power that we all have. But I know I sometimes miss an opportunity to use it.
Don’t be Judgy and It Ain’t Over Till the Lady with the Big Pipes Sings
My favorite Talmudic adage used to be the sage Hillel’s most famous one: “If I am not for myself, who will be? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?”
I’ve decided that I don’t really like adages framed as questions. So, here’s a Hillel quote that’s become more meaningful to me. “Do not judge your friend until you have stood in his place, and do not believe in yourself until the day you die.”
The first part of the quote is clear, but almost impossible to follow as how can one person really ever truly stand in the place of another? Moreover, I know that my initial instinct is to judge someone by my own lights. Empathy takes a lot of emotional and intellectual work even if the person you’re “judging” is a spouse, a child, or a sibling.
Hillel may have taken the second part of his quote from Aristotle. There’s always an opportunity to mess up a good life until the very end. No resting on your laurels. But the reverse is also true. It’s never too late to redeem yourself.
Dickens was fond of creating disreputable characters who come through with startling goodness at the end. Think of Ebenezer Scrooge, terrified by a parade of ghosts into becoming a decent, charitable man. Or dissolute Sydney Carton sacrificing himself at the guillotine to save the husband of the woman Carton loves. Carton’s last words: ”It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done.”
Who Is Truly Rich?
You’re rich, according to the sages, if you’re happy with what you have. In America in 2023, this may be the hardest piece of wisdom to follow. We live in a world that has never been more efficient at provoking envy and invidious comparison. The connection of this to a “good life” has to do with one’s self-esteem. If in any significant part of your life, you consider yourself a failure relative to others around you, can you ever be truly happy with yourself? And if not, how can your life be good?
This isn’t easy. I’ve written before about how invidious comparison plagued me often during my career on Wall Street. And how although I’ve dampened the urge toward envy, it still comes back at me from time to time, less powerful, easier to dismiss, but still it’s there.
A Parable of Who is Truly Rich (which violates my 1,000 word limit)
A man in the old country travels many miles to seek advice from his rabbi.
“Rabbi, I’m a poor man. My cottage is so small that between my five children, my wife, and me, we’re always on top of each other. And the noise they all make! If I want some peace, I’m better off in the barnyard with the chickens and the goats and my one cow. At least there I can see the sky. I’ve had it.”
The rabbi pulls gently on his white beard. “Take your chickens, your goats, and your one cow, and put them in the cottage with you.”
The man starts to argue, but the rabbi raises his index finger. The finger is withered and trembling, but it commands silence, it commands obedience. The man hangs his head, goes home, and, despite his wife’s piercing shrieks of threats, and insults, does as the rabbi had instructed.
A week later, the man again makes the long schlep to the ancient rabbi and tells him that everything is now worse. The awful smell, the dung, the clucking and the bleating and the mooing. Plus his wife’s constant fury.
A slight smile on his lips, the rabbi waits patiently for the man to empty himself of his kvetching. Then the rabbi says, “Put the animals back in the barnyard.”
The man returns home to follow the rabbi’s instructions. Now that the animals are back where they belong and with his wife no longer threatening to cut the man’s throat, the cottage feels big and clean and safe. A paradise. He’s happy.