What Does It Mean To Be A Good Person?
How To Be A Good Person According To The Bible
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
How can we answer the question about what qualities make us 'good' human beings in the eyes of God? This video looks at the verses of two speeches in the Bible, by Moses and Micah, about what God specifically asks of us.
In Parshat Eikev, we read that Moshe tells the nation exactly what God wants us to do in this life – but the prophet Micah makes a similar speech many generations later and exhorts the people very differently. Why? Rabbi Fohrman takes us into Micah's speech to see what the Bible says are the critical building blocks of being a good person.
This week's parsha contains Moshe's summary of what it is that God asks of us. In just a sentence or two Moshe summarizes everything. Mah Hashem Elokeicha shoel meimach, Moshe says, 'what is it anyway that God asks of you,' ki im, 'except for,' and then Moshe gives a whole list of things. To love God, to fear him, to serve God, to walk in his ways.
What I want to look at with you today is the fact that later on, centuries later we have a prophet who tries to do the exact same thing, boil down for you what it is that God wants in just a few words – and not only does that prophet try to do exactly the same thing, he actually sorts of quotes the opening words of Moshe.
What Does the Bible Say About Being a "Good" Person?The prophet I am thinking of is the prophet Micah and Micah's statement begins, mah Hashem doresh mimcha, 'what is it God seeks of you anyway,' ki im… 'except for dot dot dot.'
Then he gives a list but the list is radically different than the list that Moshe gives you, leading to some interesting questions. Was that prophet arguing with Moshe? He is clearly aware of what Moshe says. How does he mean for us to understand how his words drive with Moshe's words?
Now that's a very interesting question. One that I hope to address in an epilogue to this one. But in this video I want to focus with you on Micah's words, how is it that Micah summarizes all of our obligations in just a few words.
Here is what Micah says, Higid lecha adam mah tov, 'But it is told to you, oh man! What it is that's good', umah Hashem doresh mimcha 'and what it is that God seeks of you?' It really boils down to this:
- ki im-asot mishpat, 'it is just doing justice;'
- v'ahavat chesed, 'love and kindness;'
- v'hatznea lechet im-Elokeicha and 'walking modestly with the lord, your God'.
So Micah boils it down to three things here and here is the question what I ask you: How do these three things relate to each other? Are these three separate things or are they connected things and when you put these three together, does it create some sort of overall picture, is there a structure here that emerges and what would that structure look like?
How Can We Be Good Servants of God?So I want to suggest to you that there is structure. The best metaphor I can use for that structure is a staircase and to give you kind of a vivid idea of what I mean by this, I want to go back a couple of sentences, to what it is that the prophet Micah says just before this. Because if you look carefully, there you are going to find another staircase, a staircase that's the mirror image, the evil twin of this one as it were.
Bamah akadem Hashem?
With what shall I approach God?
Ikaf lelokei Marom?
How shall I show my submission to the lord who is most high?
Shall I offer offerings to him?
baagalim benei shanah?
Maybe with fine offerings, with calves that are just a year old?
Hayirtzeh Hashem b'alfei eilim?
Would God perhaps be appeased with a thousand rams?
10,000 rivers of oil?
Haeten bechori pishi?
Shall I perhaps sacrifice my first born to him?
Pri bitni chatat nafshi?
Shall I atone for whatever sins I might have by killing my children, handing them back to God?
Now the prophet is obviously being sarcastic here – he is not advocating any of these – but you can see, he is developing a kind of staircase for you.
The first level in the staircase is you might think you would offer an offering but once you think you have offered all offerings then you must offer the best offerings. You have to offer agalim benei shanah, fine calves, just a year old; and then you think maybe a thousand offerings would be better than that, maybe 10, 000 rivers of oil; and if that weren't good enough, you think you may make the supreme sacrifice, you would give your first born, maybe give all your kids to God.
There is a dangerous staircase here, at the top of the staircase is a cliff, don't go over that cliff, Micah says. It is not what I want you to do and then, he offers you an alternative staircase. The alternative vision of what it means to be a good person.
Understanding Micah's Bible Verses on Being a Good PersonBeing a good person doesn't mean finding all sorts of beyond-the-letter-of-the-law possibilities in how to serve God, offering extra offerings, even more offerings, culminating in offering the hardest thing to offer. But before you know it, you are sacrificing your kids. He is giving you an alternative vision of what goodness is.
Three levels that are built upon each other.
Level one: asot mishpat, 'be just, be fair', decency begins with fairness but it doesn't end with fairness. Fairness is just the ground level. If all you can say about yourself is that you are a fair person, you are a just person, that doesn't still make you a good person.
Right, if I am fair, so it's s a level playing field, so if you are poor, it is not my fault that you are poor. Lift yourself up by your bootstraps. And, you know, what about basic garden variety neighborliness? Oh I see, you need to borrow my lawnmower, well what did you do for me lately? Fairness isn't the only thing that goodness consists of. On top of fairness, rides kindness and that's the next thing, Micah says.
Ahavat chesed, 'You should love kindness', it should be a part of your daily regimen. Kindness without justice is mush. Justice without kindness is hard and steely edged. Those are only the first two steps.
There is a third step on top of that. What do you mean a third step? I am a decent person if I am fair and kind, what more could you asks of me? Decency actually requires a third thing. A just person, a kind person would also want to extend himself towards God. He will want to walk with God.
You must walk with God – with humility. You must walk with Him modestly because what if you do not? What if you walk with God arrogantly? Then what, it will get in the way of you being a decent person. Because you can be the fairest guy in the world and the kindest guy in the world but if you walk with God arrogantly, you know what's going to happen? You are going to end up mistreating people despite your fairness and despite your kindness.
Here's why. When you walk with God you are going to realize that not everybody walks with God the same way you walk with God. They walk with God a little differently. How are you going to deal with that?
What Is the Meaning of Goodness in the Bible?Well, let's say you deal with it arrogantly. What do you say? You know why they walk with God that way – because they are idiots, that is why. Because they don't care about the truth. The truth is so obvious, I see the truth, all my friends see the truth, why can't that idiot see the truth? Because he doesn't want to see the truth, because he is not sincere, because he is a charlatan.
If you walk with God arrogantly, everybody is the other; and once that happens, your kindness and your fairness just doesn't matter any more. Kindness and fairness that's for people like us, not for the idiots out there.
Micah in a way is giving you a vision of tolerance. If you walk humbly with God, I have the humility to understand that I do it this way but you are a sincere seeker of God and you do it that way and that changes everything. I can still be fair to you, I can still be kind to you because I walk with humility with God.