Wednesday, November 19, 2008

'No Good Deed Goes Unpunished'?

A friend called the other day: he needed my help. I had to rearrange my schedule to get to his office on time, but the thought of the loss to my work was compensated by the pleasure of the mitzvah: I was happy to help. Then, my phone rang. It was him: 'Never mind,' he said casually, 'I solved it without you.' 'Oh, and thanks anyway' - as he hung up. Never mind?!? Thanks anyway?!? My afternoon was lost, the traffic back to my neighborhood worse than usual; and when I finally got home, it was without my scarf! My favorite scarf! I had gone out of my way - and all I got for my efforts was a 'thanks anyway!' The phrase ran through my mind - I almost said it! - 'no good deed goes unpunished!' As a friend once observed, in the Jewish Bartlett Book of Quotations, 'no good deed goes unpunished' takes special place.

Abraham, our sages tell us, overcame many obstacles on his way to fulfill the divine command to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Coming down the mountain, the test at once fulfilled and averted (a paradox), the father and son meet the waiting lads, Ishmael and Eliezer: we can imagine their hopes for a triumphant homecoming. But our sages tell us that the Satan (or the evil inclination) had something else in mind. Sarah was home, preparing for Abraham's return, when the Satan arrived: 'Know where your husband is?,' he asked. Without giving Sarah the chance to answer, he continued: 'well your husband - how old is he now, in his hundred and thirties? - took your son Isaac to Mount Moriah to sacrifice him.' 'I saw him' - he lied - 'terrible sight, really, your son, screaming, crying, saying he couldn't take it.' At which point, our sages tell us, Sarah died. It turns out that not everyone survived the Akeida - the binding of Isaac. Sarah was its casualty.

When Abraham does return home, it's not to greet her, but to fulfill a grim task - 'to eulogize her and to cry for her.' The laws of mourning - that both accomodate and structure the needs of human psyche - tell us that first one cries and only after gives a eulogy. Before the formality of mourning and speech, there is the expression of raw emotion. It is as if God says, 'do not supress your humanity to please me!' First the outpouring, then the mourning which enables the transition back to the world of the living. But Abraham engaged in the formal act of mourning first.

Abraham was a celebrity. With Sarah, he had dedicated his life to bringing people close to the one G-d. Abraham had no regrets for his actions: the Torah calls him tamim - pure, even perfect, in his acceptance of G-d's will. But he knew how people think. They will say, Abraham thought to himself: 'Abraham has come back from Mount Moriah with his son to find Sarah dead. Surely, he should have expected G-d to reward his deeds, and instead he finds this!' That is why Abraham refrained from crying. For had he cried, the people of Hebron would have thought - Abraham is crying out of regret for having performed the mitzvah of attending to G-d's words! Like us, they would have shaken their heads knowingly and said to themselves, 'no good deed goes unpunished!' There's Abraham regretting the Akeida. So Abraham mourns first, and then cries.

'Be pure' - תמים תהיה - 'with Hashem your G-d' - the Torah exhorts in Deuteronomy. While the nations of the world practice witchcraft and hearken after those who claim to divine the future, the Torah commands, 'be pure with your G-d': don't anticipate what the future will bring, live in the present! Be pure - like Abraham - who makes himself present to the moment, as when he answers the divine call: 'Hineni, here I am.' Presence to the moment - to the here and now - means to refrain from calculating what the future will or should bring. Abraham knows that mitzvos are rewarded, that his portion is with the one G-d but he doesn't know how. In that humble knowledge, he leaves room for the divine, for the unfolding of a future which he does not fully understand, and which may not go according to his expectations. Surely, there are scoffers in Hebron who will want to say that the world is run by a god with a bad sense of humor whose main principle is 'no good deed goes unpunished.' But while they mock Abraham's beliefs, it is they who indulge in divination, who have created an impoverished religion out of their own laziness or stinginess: 'We told you so,' they say, 'your good deeds have done you no good.' 'You lost your scarf,' they deride, 'next time you will know better!' But telling their own stories about reward and punishment is really just a form of avoidance - avoiding the present, the imperative of now, the imperative of saying 'Hineni, I am here!'

In the evening prayers, we turn to G-d and ask: remove the Satan from before us and from behind us. There are not only obstacles which we meet on the way to performing good deeds, but also those we encounter after. Sometimes, the Satan, as in the case of Abraham, does his best to run after us. So we entreat G-d to take away the obstacles that lie before us, as well as the ones that come from behind - that we will be pure like Abraham. That is, we pray that the thought - 'no good deed goes unpunished' - will remain far from our minds!

1 comment:

Shira said...

shkoyach. well written. yes, it was a good break :-)