Does It Pay to Be Nice?
Are you a nice person? What makes you think so? Then there is the better question: Does it “pay” to be nice? The word “nice” derived from Middle English, once meant ignorant and stupid. People do indeed often take you for foolish, stupid or weak when you’re nice. In corporate America, I learned quickly that being nice wouldn’t pave the road to success but rather ensured you’d end up being roadkill on that very same road.
Did it pay for Moses to be nice? You can’t get nicer than him. He led his people to the Promised Land via great efforts and personal sacrifice, and in the end he himself wasn’t even allowed in. He didn’t even end up with a Lifetime Achievement Award. If being nice pays, how come only the good die young? How come the squeaky wheel gets serviced? How come it’s the guy who punches hardest that wins the heavyweight championship and not the guy who gives him a massage? How come Putin is blasting his way through the Ukraine and getting away with it?
It is very hard to keep being nice in a world that often deems you a fool for being so. Let’s face it, nice guys finish last.
But, my friends, if we don’t like the answers it’s because we have approached these questions with a capitalistic mindset. We want payment in the here and now to prove being nice is worth it. However, we are not here to walk our days on earth as collectors of treats because we did something good. Life is a whetting stone we must use to shape us into the best version of ourselves. We are meant to be conquerors of our own evil impulses, temptations and distractions and to build our “soul muscles” via those resistances. We are tasked with fighting the darkness by being the light.
It most certainly pays to be “nice” as prescribed by the Torah, i.e., giving charity, not hating your brother in your heart, loving your neighbor as yourself, not putting a stumbling block before the blind, etc. Yes it “pays” but we just have to decide which currency we value and which one we want to trade in: deeds or dollars? It is precisely because acts of kindness often get lost in an ever-darkening world that we have the additional responsibility of being extra good, extra nice and extra charitable in order to sustain the light in the world. If each one of us serves as a spark, combined we form an intense ray that can save the world—just like a laser beam (intensified light) can blast cancer. It is said that in every generation there are 36 righteous people who sustain the world, and if not for them, the world would revert to chaos. The power of “good” is the only real power we have and a sustaining force.
In this week’s Torah reading, Vayakhel, we read how G-d’s Tabernacle, the very place where He would speak with Moses and interface with the people was built from materials which had a very special source, the heart: “Take from yourselves an offering for the L-rd; every generous hearted person shall bring it ….” (Exodus 35:5-6). G-d’s Torah is all about having a heart for each other. The last letter of the Torah and its first, lamed and beit, respectively, spell the word "heart," lev. It’s the swivel point of our existence around which our lives must spin.
This is not an advertisement to pursue the base passions of the heart when we love something or someone forbidden to us, G-d forbid. Nor is it an excuse to have mercy on the wicked, for we are taught that if you are kind to the cruel, you will end up being cruel to the kind. But rather, we are to serve G-d with a wise and discerning heart. A wise open heart fears G-d and inspires the hand to open up too in brotherhood, compassion and charity. “Fortunate is the man who is always afraid, but he who hardens his heart will fall into evil.” (Proverbs 28:14). And so, we read in the Shema Yisrael prayer that we must love and serve G-d with all of our hearts, meaning with all our passions, both inclinations: Good and evil. We cannot love G-d if we don’t love His children. This lack of heart for each other led to the destruction of the Second Temple and nearly brought the complete annihilation of the Jews during the time of Queen Esther and Mordechai. We have only to open our eyes to see what lack of heart is doing to us now.
It is written that in the Messianic Age that “the Eternal, your G‑d, will circumcise your heart." The question is, when that time comes, will G-d be able to find our hearts? Recently, with a first of its kind success, a genetically modified pig’s heart was implanted into a human being. I’m glad a life was saved; Yet, I can’t help but wonder, in a symbolical sense, how similar our own hearts may have come to resemble that of a chazir’s that we can no longer distinguish between the holy and the profane, that our bodies don’t reject it.
It is said that when we die we will be shown two films. One will be a biography of our entire lives, a true nitty-gritty tell-all expose. The other film will be of all that we could have been if we had lived our lives by G-d’s cues and directions and had given our days the best performance we could, loved one another, helped one another, etc. The gap between these two films is a tragic abyss, a black hole from which no light escapes. It is in our hands NOW to decide what movie we want to make and what scenes we want to cut and leave on the edit room floor. Just remember that there are no second takes, the part you play today is a role of a lifetime. Perhaps it’s time to kill the villain inside and be the hero you were born to be. Shabbat Shalom!