No good deed goes unpunished.
It was a statement I first came across while living in Oxford. A friend of ours had bought my wife, Debbie, a few pillows with sayings on them for her birthday. This was one of them.
When I have at times wallowed in the pathetic self-pity that results from a feeling of victimhood, the axiom has immediately sprung to mind. Here I was trying to help someone and yet I paid a price for it. No good deed goes unpunished, indeed. How true that is.
Try introducing a man and woman to each other for romantic purposes. I have about 30 marriages, thank G-d, to my credit. With rare exceptions the people whom I have introduced have not stayed in touch or have even consciously avoided me. I assume the reason is that they feel the debt is too great, the assistance too serious. They feel uncomfortable so they keep their distance. How odd, I have thought to myself, that one can lose a friend by introducing them to their life's mate. But then again, no good deed goes unpunished.
And still you do it because it's the right thing, even if you suffer for it (and yes, I'm of course being overly melodramatic, but self-pity will do that).
There have been other times when I have felt punished for an act of kindness, like when I have extended myself to apologize to a friend -- even though I was sure that I was the aggrieved party -- in order to fulfill the beautiful teaching of the Lubavitcher Rebbe that "better to lose an argument and win a friendship then to win an argument and lose a friendship," only to have the person testily reject the apology. But then, just as I want to tell myself that "no good deed goes unpunished" and feel all aggrieved, I have recalled all the instances where I too have punished those who have tried to be good to me.
But think about it. If people who are trying to be nice end up being punished for their kindness, they will harden their hearts and cease extending themselves for others. The result will be a colder, crueler world.
This is the reason gratitude is such an important virtue in Judaism and it also explains the connection between two unique commandments of the Torah that otherwise seem unrelated.
Only twice in the Torah does G-d promise the reward of long life in return for the fulfillment of a commandment. The first is honoring one's parents. The second is found in this week's Torah reading, Ki Teitzei (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19), where G-d commands that we shoo away a mother bird when taking the eggs from her nest and not capture her in the process. The connection? Each involves a special protection against taking advantage of those in vulnerable circumstances.
G-d has to offer special protection for parents against disrespect from children because a child is the one party from whom a man or woman will tolerate abuse. If a friend yells at me I may not continue with the friendship. But if a child is abusive we parents may punish or try and correct them. But even if that fails we will often endure the abusive treatment because we cannot live without the love of our children. Few things hurt more than feeling disconnected from one's child and we are prepared, therefore, to be hurt by a son or daughter, just as long as they do not abandon us. So G-d jumps to the rescue with a special commandment to honor one's parents. In other words, don't take advantage of your parents' vulnerability.
The same is true with refraining from capturing a mother bird in her own vulnerable state of protecting her offspring. It is not easy to capture a bird. It has wings and can fly away. But a mother protecting her young is at a distinct disadvantage, seeing as she will not ditch them, even if it means being captured in the process. G-d therefore inserts Himself with a specific commandment protecting the mother bird in her defenseless state. Go try and catch her when she is flying. But not when her motherly instinct renders her helpless. Do not act in such a way as to give credence to the cynical axiom, no good deed goes unpunished.
Imagine you're walking down a dark alley and you see a man on the floor, grasping his chest and gasping for air. You bend down to give him mouth to mouth and save his life. Just as you do, he pulls out a knife, puts it to your neck, and orders you to give him your wallet. No doubt the next time you see someone in distress you will keep on walking. You're not going to be a sucker again. Your heart has closed to those in need and the world has become a colder, less feeling, less loving place. That's the effect of taking advantage of people's vulnerability. They swear never to be soft again.
Therefore, the Torah always protects those who extend themselves to show their softer, more caring side so as to safeguard the nurturing instinct in each of us and not allow the human heart to harden.
A pillow is designed to be soft. So too the human heart.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach will shortly publish 'Ten Conversations You Need to Have with Yourself' (Wiley) and is currently founding GIVE, the Global Institute for Values Education. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.
This column is dedicated to the memory of Machla Debakarov, the mother of a close friend who passed away this year.