What my great-grandfather and, more recently, my congregants have taught me about what it means to act ethically and with courage.
by Helene Ferris
When I was a little girl, my German-born great-grandmother lived with us from time to time. Unfortunately she was confined to a wheelchair. I remember her sitting with a Reform prayer book in her lap, and despite all of her physical problems, she was always smiling.
My great-grandmother was the most accepting person I’ve ever met. She never had a bad word to say about anyone. My childhood was somewhat difficult, so I really needed her in my life at that time.
She taught me by her example how to find peace and comfort in connecting to something beyond myself. For me it was a connection to God. I don’t know whether she passed that along to me, but I could see how it gave strength and meaning to her life.
Today my congregants teach me more about character than I could ever teach them. I’ll give you some examples. One couple lost their only child in a car accident. After some time, and much red tape, they adopted two children from a Romanian orphanage. They had so much love to give, and instead of staying bitter, wallowing in their pain and wasting their energy on unanswerable questions like “why me?,” they found a way to give that love. Our tradition says, “To save one life is to save the world.” They saved two worlds. I know one divorced woman who was almost crushed by an abusive husband. She now takes time in her busy life to help other abused women. She does it with grace and strength; and she is a new person. A 16-year-old in our community lost her father to cancer and then, a year later, her mother in an automobile accident. She’s had problems, but she also possessed the strength of character to make something of herself. She recently graduated from NYU summa cum laude. An 85-year-old woman who runs our congregation’s Caring Committee cooks and shleps meals to those recovering from illness, and she’s not all that well herself. A wealthy man once convicted of tax evasion now works with the Fresh Air Fund to help underprivileged kids find some joy in their summers. These individuals had the strength of character to turn adversity into positive action. And I know many others like them.
What makes them exceptional is their willingness to take the risks necessary to change their lives, and then to stay the course. Character change takes both courage and tenacity. One of the best examples of these attributes is the group Women of the Wall. For the past sixteen years they’ve struggled to exercise their right to pray at the Kotel in Jerusalem. They’re often in the line of fire, encountering physical and verbal abuse when they pray, and yet they take these risks in order to uphold the right of women to worship with dignity.
In measuring a person’s character I take into account the reason behind the actions. If you do the right thing for fame, power, wealth—that doesn’t demonstrate character. I am more impressed by those who perform mitzvot like packing up boxes for the hurricane relief or cooking for someone who is homebound--without anyone knowing what they are doing. So doing the right things for the right reasons counts for a lot in assessing character.
I also keep in mind that sometimes knowing what to do is not so easy to discern. Every day I ask, “What does God require of me today?” but sometimes the answer to the question is not immediately revealed to me. I therefore have to strive every day to fulfill my ethical obligations, and I emphasize the striving, because the effects of our deeds are not always apparent.
I truly believe that there’s something inside of everybody that calls us to good action. The potential is there. But it takes practice. Someone may have potential to play tennis, but if she doesn’t get out on the court, she’ll never be able to play the game. The same holds true for those who wish to engage in tikkun olam, the healing of our world. If you do not practice ethical behavior regularly, it will be very difficult to live a fully ethical life.
Rabbi Helene Ferris is spiritual leader of Temple Israel of Northern Westchester in Croton-on-Hudson, New York.