Sunday, Oct 17, 2021

A Good Name

It’s a given in the Jewish world that a good reputation is a great thing to have. Not for us the careless, “Do what you want and who cares about the consequences?” attitude that some deluded souls call freedom. We do care about the consequences, especially with regards to our standing with the people around us.

We want to be highly thought of by those whom we respect and, interestingly, even by those we don’t think that much of. We care about what others think of us, pretty much across the board. We are all good-name wannabes.

Chazal tell us that a good name is the highest crown that a person can wear.  So how, you may ask, does one go about acquiring one? If it’s such an exalted crown, it can’t be such an easy thing to put in your shopping bag and take home with you, right?

Not necessarily.

Acquiring a good name may not be as easy as squeezing a cantaloupe and dropping it into your cart, but it is certainly doable. And the nicest part is that we can make this purchase while going about our ordinary lives. No need for special classes or regimens or workouts. Day by day, even minute by minute, we are presented with opportunities for polishing another jewel in that coveted crown. Here’s how.

One of the most outstanding features of gedolim has been their constancy. Another word for this is consistency. While the rest of us labor under the handicap of our moods and whims, great men and women train themselves to be master of their moods and banish whims from their repertoires entirely.

“But I’m not a gadol, nor likely to ever become one,” you protest. Well, here’s the good news: each of us, in our own small world, has the capacity for greatness. It may not be nation-wide greatness, paired with an exalted spiritual personality, tremendous wisdom and leadership. It may be only a modest greatness, one which sheds its light over one’s personal circle and, in turn, helps those who share that circle onto their own paths to greatness. But who says that’s a small thing?

Consistency in our avodas Hashem is something we can all achieve. Just as we eat three times a day without fail and put our heads down on our pillows every night, the spiritual work entrusted to us deserves no less, and benefits us far more. We can skip a meal and even a night’s sleep without long-term consequences. But every missed davening or neglected opportunity for a mitzvah is a loss of the most long-term kind. The eternal kind.

All we need to do is establish a mindset that places our spiritual avodah on a par with our physical self-maintenance. Put that way, it sounds laughable. Who actually believes that his physical self is more important than his Divine soul?  Sadly, what we believe and where we put our energies can sometimes be two very different things. As I have had reason to mention before on these pages, our bodies are much more loudly insistent than our quiet neshamos. Our bodies yell, “Feed me!” Our souls whisper the same message, but it’s one that we have to pay close attention to hear.

If we put in our spiritual hearing aids, we can pick up those faint calls. The neshomah craves a steady diet of Torah, mitzvos, good middos and chesed. Not just once in a while, but every single day. Let’s feed it what it needs. Let’s put these vital things in our spiritual diet plan and establish an unalterable rhythm for our days. A rhythm that includes all the components necessary for our neshomah’s continued good health, in this world and the next.

My own father, z”l, a student of some of the great yeshivos of pre-war Europe, never chose to teach or lead others except by his sterling example. His was a life of quiet and consistent avodas Hashem, coupled with a pleasant demeanor that made him beloved by those around him. If people are okay with you, Pirkei Avos tells us, that’s a pretty good sign that Hashem, is, too. At my father’s levayah, the funeral hall staff were surprised when they had to open up the expansive rear of the chapel to accommodate the overflow crowd. Hundreds of people had streamed in to pay their last respects to this great non-gadol. Somehow, they intuited the stature that hid behind the modest facade. What was his secret?

One of the people who paid a shivah call put her finger on the button. “I used to see your father walking past my house to shul every morning and every evening. I could set a clock by him.”

Consistency. The hallmark of greatness.

*****

And then there’s the opposite route to a good name. A person can live a simple, ordinary life for many years, until she does one great thing that turns her into someone that is remembered forever.

Sara Schenirer comes to mind. Though I’m sure she also served Hashem with dedication and consistency, that is not what she is primarily remembered for. Her claim to fame, and to the golden and unassailable reputation that she earned, is the single, shining achievement that we associate with her name. Bais Yaakov.

We ordinary folks can follow in her footsteps. In our own, narrow lives and in the broader world of our communities, we can dare to notice a need among our people and to fill it. You may have the good fortune to fill a need that helps many. Or maybe the impact of our action will be felt by just one person. But I promise you: that person will never forget. And gradually, from that one individual to his family, and from there to the wider world, your good name will spread. Goodness never goes to waste.

Interestingly, the good name that you earn may not even be connected to a particularly vigorous or courageous effort. Something that you do in an almost off-hand manner, just because you’re a decent person, can earn you the crown of others’ approval and admiration. You don’t have to be a super-hero to be heroic.

*****

In these sorry times, many people who live in the public eye feel compelled to provide a narrative. They can be quite creative, and the price they demand for their creativity is your willingness to subscribe to the self-authored story of their life. If they say they’re good, they expect you to believe it. More: they expect you to swallow their self-aggrandizement whole.

Because we are guided by a Divine document from the Creator, Whose seal is emes, we have been endowed with a fully-functioning truth sensor. We can sniff out the emptiness of people who puff themselves up and toot their own horns. In the classic work Pride and Prejudice, we are introduced to two contrasting characters, about whom another character says, “One has all the goodness, while the other has all the appearance of it.” I think that each of us is capable of discerning the difference between actual goodness and the appearance of it. Our inbuilt emes-meters can pick up the noxious odor of falsity, however well disguised.

So let’s train ourselves to be consistent in our spiritual endeavors, in the knowledge that each repeated act of goodness and connection to Hashem will reap the richest reward of all.

Let’s be ready to seize opportunities for greatness as they present themselves to us, and to act on them.

And let’s learn to tell the difference between real goodness and the mere appearance of it.

So that the right people—including ourselves—will be able to bow our heads in grateful humility to accept the highest crown of all.

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