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Why Be Good?

I used to have interesting conversations with a friend who had studied for the Catholic priesthood in his youth. We talked about questions of ethics and morality from the perspectives of our two traditions. In one conversation, I mentioned that Jews don’t really concern themselves with an afterlife, that you can attend services year after year and never hear anything about what happens after death. My friend was shocked and asked, “Well, then, why be good?”

We hear about a Judeo-Christian tradition, but, it seems to me, fundamental issues make Judaism more akin to Buddhism or even Hinduism than to Christianity. This question, “why be good if there is no reward in the afterlife?” is one of those chasms that yawn between the two traditions.

In this, as in so many things, Moses provides a model. Moses never seemed to have a happy moment. We never hear of him laughing or smiling. And why should he have? God pushed and prodded him into a position of importance, but not one that gave Moshe peace or joy. He had to contend with the constant whining of an undisciplined rabble. He had to contend with efforts at usurpation from his brother and sister. And for all his struggles, Moshe never gets to enter into the promised land, but only to look over Jordan into it.

Our lives, even the happiest, often present us with as many struggles as those Moses faced. So why be good, especially if all we can hope for a reward or punishment must be found in this life alone?

Moshe asks a lot of God in this parasha, but the result is that even more is asked of Moshe. After the events of the Golden Calf, Moshe says to God, “See, you say to me, ‘Bring this people up,’ and you haven’t made known to me whom you will send with me… . And now, if I’ve found favor in your eyes, make your ways known to me, so that I may know you, so that I’ll find favor in your eyes.” Exodus 33:12-13. Moshe must have felt tremendous relief when God told Moses that God’s face would lead him and would give Moses a rest. (33:14.)

But God hardly does anything that would seem to give Moses a rest or lighten his burden. God immediately tells Moses he must carve two stone tablets and then rise early the next morning to carry them to the top of Mount Sinai. Once there, Moshe is given a long list of rules for observing Shabbat, the holidays, and sacrifices, and against idol worship. Moshe stays on the top of Mount Sinai without food or water for 40 days and nights, during which he carves the ten commandments on the stone tablets.

God may be in the lead, but wherever God is leading seems more like a struggle than a light burden. Why would Moshe take this path if he is not a masochist, and what can be attractive in this path for us if we are not masochistic? Nothing seems to compel Moshe to take all this on. God does not threaten to strike him down if he refuses. Indeed, God alone does not carve the second set of tablets, unlike the first. It is Moshe who carves the tablets, hauls them up the mountain, and then inscribes the ten commandments on them. Again, why take this on?

I wonder whether the answer might not be found in the time spent with God on Mount Sinai. Moses is not given a glimpse of God’s face, but, instead, is given something of far greater worth. He is given an ecstatic vision of God’s presence filling the entirety of ha-olam.

“Olam” can be and is commonly translated as “world” or “universe.” In other words, it has a spatial element. But it can also be translated as “eternity,” that is, having a temporal element. Taken together, God’s presence fills all space and time. Infinite space and time.

Moshe was given this vision as he watched God’s back, as God receded from him and Moshe could see the emanations of God’s presence. And as Moshe saw this, he also heard God telling him something of these Godly emanations: compassion, grace, being slow to anger, filled with kindness and faithfulness, giving kindness through thousands of generations, forgiving sin, but also demanding justice from those who have sinned and visiting the consequences of those sins through time to the sinners’ descendants. In that time on Sinai, Moshe chose to become part of those Godly emanations. Indeed, if God’s presence fills ha-olam, we have no choice in the matter: what any of us does necessarily is a part of those emanations. We just are unaware of our connections to infinite space and time. But Moses saw and understood.

On Sinai, Moses was lifted from the finite with its finite pleasures into the infinite, an existence in which pleasure too is infinite. The Hindu scripture, Chandogya Upanishad VII.23.1. says: “There is no joy in the finite. The Infinite alone is joy.”

Moses did not need to enter into a physical and finite promised land. Moshe lived in the infinite space and time of the real promised land. Moses had no need for finite promises of reward. Those are for children. On Mount Sinai, Moses embraced an infinite, adult life. Why be good? Moshe lived within the infinite reward given to those who know and see the emanations that flow from doing the good.

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