In last week’s blog, “Is Empathy a Predictor of Success,” I wrote about a Harvard study that showed kids believe their parents care more about achievement than caring for others. As I wrote last week, “The science reveals the irony of the situation: happier and more successful kids are those who care about others. They are able to relate, be concerned, and respect differences, while a lack of empathy makes kids less successful, and less happy.” If we look at raising our children through a Jewish lens, there is no doubt that Judaism places goodness at a premium, certainly before success as a means unto itself. I suspect, and others have suggested, however, that more people choose values such as achievement, success, and happiness, and do not rank goodness first because there’s an underlying assumption that people are inherently good.
This is not true. Observe any toddler and we can see that goodness is not innate. Children learn by example to be good, and with much practice, as anything else done well in life. When it comes to children, we confuse goodness with innocence. Adults typically assume they too are good simply because they do not steal, murder, or cheat. If you ask me, I think this means we set the bar low by assuming we are neither crooks nor immoral.
Goodness demands practice, effort, and self-awareness. Goodness leads to happiness and I believe it is time for each of us – parents and educators – to spend more time intentionally cultivating that attribute in our children (and ourselves).
A challenge society faces is whether enough people care enough about being good, or actually put time into thinking about it. Without good people who have developed an authentic sense of empathy, how can we ultimately survive as a community, society, or nation? Alarmingly, studies show that empathy and kindness have been on the decline in America – a phenomenon that has real-world implications to the future fabric of our communities. I believe that if more of us realized that goodness requires real effort and self-awareness, more of us would make it the most important attribute and maybe focus more on it.
Our Jewish tradition is clear about expectations. Rabbi Hillel taught, “Do not do unto others that which you do not want done unto you.” That is the starting point. What are the next steps? Our tradition teaches us that God created the world, that the world is very good, and that people should rule over it. God, creating the world with justice and mercy, expects the same from His people who He created in His image. When the Torah states that we should “walk in His ways,” we look to God’s attributes to understand what that means to live a life of justice, mercy, and compassion. According to the Torah, how we treat the powerless, the poor, the weak, the sick, and how we treat each other in our relationships, define the standard of justice. This is not easy. Sometimes we get so caught up in the moment or in our own lives that we do not really consider the needs of others with compassion, fairness, or justice.
Additionally, our tradition teaches that to live a life of goodness, a life in which we care and act justly and with compassion, we need to develop a sense of gratitude and appreciation. When we can acknowledge our own blessings, we will be better motivated to extend ourselves to others.
Our tradition (God) recognized that without structure and a framework [Mitzvot] it would be difficult to frame our lives in this way and focus our purpose towards good. It requires hard work and discipline. Left without expectations to act in a just and compassionate manner, it is unlikely that people will develop the necessary moral compass to live this type of meaningful life. We all need to be held accountable for the moral choices we make. We do not do that enough.
As parents and educators, we must model goodness for our children and hold them accountable for their interpersonal behavior. Simple things like insisting that children say please and thank you helps instill a sense of respect and appreciation. This is a basic requirement and should be a clear expectation. We need to observe how our children treat each other, and the adults in their world, and guide them toward respectful behavior. This too takes a lot of work, time, and patience. At the same time, we need to foster compassion for others and provide children with opportunities to “do justice” through acts of Tzedakah and Gemilut Hasadim [acts of loving kindness].
As I wrote last week, lasting happiness and success “ironically” come from the moral choices we make; that is, the quality of our relationships and the contributions we make with time and money to help others. In this way we, as Jews, fulfill our obligation to bring justice, mercy, and compassion into the world. This is what it means to be good, to live lives informed by our empathy for others, and this is what Judaism demands of us.