Good Service and the Hazard of Abstraction

02/17/2017 08:47 am ET | Updated 1 day ago

Goodness may be a sophisticated philosophical concept. That must not keep us from practicing it.

Several evenings ago, I took myself out for a drink at the end of the work-day. It had been a long day, full of back to back commitments, and had gone quite well, and I felt like some quiet time incognito.

As it happened, I got drawn into conversation with a young couple sitting at the same corner of the bar – she a nurse with the VNA, he a policeman with the BPD bicycle unit, the two of them sharing their first evening out together since the birth of their second child. He was the youngest son of seven, from a family in West Roxbury, she was from a small town. He worked all day every weekday, with overtime; she did the same on weekends, optimal for looking after the children but less so for spending time with one another.

I felt some compunctions at winding up a third wheel in their date – but again and again they felt like chatting and initiated, and I realized they likely did not have the chance all that often to visit with someone new socially as a pair. This wasn’t only when they learned I was a chaplain either – a role both of them knew well from their work-lives (whereas I find that college students, naturally and mostly happily, enter not quite knowing yet what a chaplain is or may be good for).

I found myself thinking, as I walked out into the chilly night sometime later – thank God for good people. In every respect, so far as I could tell, these two young spouses, parents, and frontline professionals, without complaint and with remarkably good spirit, were leading quiet lives of constant service.

This week in the Torah we read the Ten Commandments – as a friend pointed out many years ago, speaking in his father’s rabbinic pulpit in Bayonne, New Jersey, as a Harvard alumnus and visiting rabbinical student, not ‘the ten reasonably good ideas’ or ‘friendly suggestions,’ but commandments.

In many instances and ways, our values and perspectives today differ from those of our biblical ancestors. What remains, however, and seems continuous from them to us – and resounds through the Torah, however we may hear the scriptures – is an essential imperative of decency.

We do hear the Torah differently, from our ancestors and from one another. The first literary collections of rabbinic thought record differences of opinion; the most ancient documents of rabbinic lore reflect diversity of ideology. A student’s heart must be a “chamber of chambers,” capable of containing and comprehending opposed positions on any given matter, urges one early adage (as recorded in the Tosefta, Sotah 7:12); two differing schools of thought can both reflect “the words of the living God,” says a Talmudic story about the opposing rabbinic camps of Shammai and Hillel (Babylonian Talmud, Eiruvin 13b); and the Blessed Holy One appears to the people “like an image that shows aspects to all sides,” in an interpretive account of Sinai, God addressing each Israelite in personalized and singular terms (Yalkut Shimoni, Yitro 286) – to cite just a few examples of the pluralistic theme from a range of points in the post-biblical history of our people.

At the same time, as we interpret, iterate, and elaborate our tradition, we do not jettison either the words of the scriptures themselves – which we continue to read, cyclically, week by week, year by year, lifetime by lifetime – nor the driving impulse in them, the vital search for goodness. Welcome the stranger. Care for the widow and orphan. Esteem one’s neighbor, in love, as oneself. Remember, we were slaves in the land of Egypt – we know, or we should know and should always bear in mind what it is to be downcast and oppressed. These are not messages that require doctoral degrees and rabbinic ordination to understand.

Living these imperatives, however, does seem to get more and more complicated for many of us – and perhaps more and more so the farther away we situate ourselves, as many of us can, from the world’s most urgent needs. For many students and teachers, a university is quite remote from the urban beat of a policeman or the bedside of a hospice ward. Sometimes as college denizens seek out service projects we can almost seem to be venturing into realms of the exotic – but the laudable impulse is to find and to become relevant and of use in the real world.

Some students, of course, need no reminding of what the real world is. Some have fled war with their families. Some have experienced fundamental uncertainty as to the essentials of survival. Some have seen too much death firsthand. Many have not. The hazard is that the rarified air and ideas of the University can incubate the notion that goodness and true service – being, as one may come to think, lofty, philosophical ideals – are so removed from us by distances and degrees of sophisticated thinking as to be undiscoverable.

“Until cities be waste without inhabitant, and houses without humanity, and the earth become utterly desolate, and the Eternal One be so remote with humankind, and the forsaken places be many in the midst of the land” (Isaiah 6:11-12) – God forbid. And in practice, good people through simple action must forbid it – and we can.

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