This week, for the fourth consecutive year, I am conducting Jewish High Holiday services. Though not a rabbi, I spent 12 years studying in yeshivas and 35 years teaching and writing on Judaism. The following is a summary of the Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) sermon that I gave this past Wednesday night.
The purpose of the High Holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) is moral introspection: What kind of person am I, and what kind of person can I become? So, every year, Jews meditate on the issue of becoming a better person.
But how many of us do become better people the next year?
This question has bothered me for many years, and I have decided to finally address it. Why is it so hard to become a better person?
I have — unfortunately — come up with 13 reasons.
1. Most people don’t particularly want to be good
The biggest obstacle to people becoming better is that you have to really want to be a good person in order to be a better person, and most people would rather be other things. People devote far more effort to being happy (they do not know that goodness leads to increased happiness), successful, smart, attractive, and healthy, to cite the most prominent examples.
2. Confusion about what goodness is.
Goodness is about character — integrity, honesty, kindness, generosity, moral courage, and the like. More than anything else, it is about how we treat other people.
Not everyone agrees.
For thousands of years, more than a few religious individuals have regarded goodness as being more about sexual behavior and religious piety than about character and the decent treatment of others. And while sexual behavior and religious piety are important, they are not as important as simply acting decently toward other human beings. That is what God wants most (see Micah 6:8, for example) and what we should want most.
At the other end of the spectrum, to modern progressives, goodness is all too often about having the correct political positions, not about character development.
3. Goodness is not about intentions.
Very few people have bad intentions. Even many people who commit real evil — such as true-believing Nazis, Communists, and Islamists — have good intentions. But as an ancient Jewish dictum put it, “It is not the thought that counts, but the action.” Good intentions alone produce good people about as often as good intentions alone produce good surgeons.
4. We don’t learn how to be good.
Even if you want to be a good person, where is the instruction manual? Where are the teachers, the coaches, and the schools? People spend years studying how to be good at everything — from sports to medicine to plumbing — except how to be good people.
5. We think too highly of ourselves.
Self-esteem frequently runs counter to goodness. Raising children with self-esteem sounds great, but when unearned — which it usually is — it leads to bad results. In fact, it is people who do not have particularly high self-esteem, people who feel that they constantly have to prove their worth, who are more likely to act good. And it is violent criminals who have the highest self-esteem — “I am better than others and can therefore do whatever I want.”