A Meditation on the Measurement of Deeds

Thanks to Mariann Wizard and Latenight Liz for this.

“Small Generosities and Hidden Goodnesses”
Rabbi’s Notes – July 2007
by Rabbi Margaret Holub

I’ve been musing a bit lately on a failed scheme from my youth. As some of you know, after college I headed directly to PhD school, to a program in social ethics. I found out pretty quickly that I wasn’t quite cut out for the hard-core academic life. But along the way I had a brilliant idea for a dissertation. Since I was studying ethics, I thought, why not write my dissertation on the best person in the world?

And who might that be? This was my topic of conversation and speculation whenever anyone would talk to me those days. Mother Theresa? Nelson Mandela? Martin Luther King?

Meanwhile I was living with two other graduate students in a big empty house in Echo Park. This was in the late 1970’s, when a lot of Southeast Asian refugees were making their ways to Los Angeles. The Jewish community got revved up during those days and took some leadership in sponsoring refugees. I called up a synagogue and asked if I could help them with their refugee family. “Sure,” they said. “Can they live with you?” That’s how my roommates and I had the great pleasure of hosting Pruong Pin and his family — refugees from rural Cambodia, four years in a Thai camp and then on an airplane to the USA, to their first electricity, first flush toilets, first telephones, many firsts.

The three of us hosts had the greatest admiration for Pin in particular, for his remarkable humor and flexibility and grace under what must have been mind-boggling challenges. We’d see him cuddling his two-year-old and so-gently teasing her, struggling gamely to formulate a question about our lives with his handful of English words, trying to work our blender and shooting coffee and ice cubes all over the ceiling. Pin and his family lived with us for something like six weeks. When they moved into their own apartment, we found scraps of paper all over the house that said, in Pin’s first handwriting, PRUONGPIN12345678910. We even found those letters and numerals written on the back of our old naugahyde couch. We thought about Pin and his wife trying on their own to learn to write, along with everything else they had to learn, and their courage almost made us cry.

So one day I thought about my imaginary dissertation; why am only I thinking of the most famous great people, the ones whose goodness has been the most monumental? Do you have to change the world to be truly good? Maybe, in fact, the best person in the world was living right in my house. What could possibly be any better than being warm and sweet and sane, consoling your family, making friends, laughing? Not even to mention surviving upheaval, traversing worlds, and keeping your center while doing so?

I was thinking about this again recently because of a project I’m involved with. I’m part of a group which is trying to do, I dare say, some very good things. To do these things we are making proposals and securing grants (successfully, thank you!) and hiring staff and so on. We actually have an ambitious plan and a substantial budget. But everyone is overworked, and we are a little panicked about the benchmarks we have set. And we need to raise even more money to reach our goals, and these themselves are set to be bigger in year two than they are in year one and so on. There is never enough…

And, even though I understand the economy of good deeds, how the world’s need is enormous, and how you can never do enough, and more deeds are always better then fewer, for a moment I found myself flashing back to my search for “the best person in the world.” And it has gotten me thinking about the virtue of moral smallness.

You may well know (if only from Andre Schwartz-Bart’s tragic novel) about the tradition that there are, at any given moment, at least thirty-six righteous people who, by their goodness, assure the continuation of the world. These lamed-vavniks (lamed-vav spelling “36”) are hidden. You won’t see them on the front page of the Times. Bill Moyers will not interview them. They chop wood for the poor widow in the middle of the night and leave it anonymously outside her door. They make conversation with the most awkward person at the party.

Only now as I am writing this do I think of my beloved text about “deeds without measure whose reward is without measure…” I have never really considered the first part of this formula. Who can take the measure of a deed? Who can say that something accomplished on a world scale is more important than something accomplished around a dinner table at home? And what are these deeds without measure? Honoring your parents. Showing up for people’s simchas and their sorrows. Making peace between friends who are at odds. You know the list. Deeds which are, for the most part, small, intimate, local. When a new baby is blessed, we say, “Zeh ha-katan, gadol yihyeh.” “This little one, may he become great.” Great yes, indeed — but may she not entirely forget the importance of being small.

I know well that the peace and joy of my household is built on many small kindnesses. So too the road I live on, and the several interlocking communities of which I am a part. So I can extrapolate that small generosities and hidden goodnesses actually do sustain the world.

Rosh Hodesh Ellul begins Tuesday, August 14. With Ellul comes the formal time of taking stock — of our lives, our achievements, our deeds, our successes and our failures. Far be it from me to discourage any of you from anything grand. But I hope we will not lose sight of the small gestures: those we have made and those made towards us, those we have wished for and those we have failed to offer. “May our deeds be small…”

I hope you have a wonderful, peaceful, freilich summer. We’ll get back to larger matters soon enough!

© 2007 Rabbi Margaret Holub

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