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Tuesday, June 22 2004 19:00
“‘How can the harshness of existence be sweetened at the core?’ the Ba’al Shem once asked his disciples.

He then answered his own question: ‘By raising oneself toward the greatest desire of all: the longing for true goodness.’

‘And what is true goodness?

It is perfect compassion.’”

I found this brief passage from a book referred to in this month’s issue of Tikkun, a Jewish magazine that typically offers much to think about. In this instance I would add: and pray about too.

Ba’al Shem Tov (the Master of the Good Name) as he is usually referred to, was one of the great rabbis of the Hasidic tradition that swept through Eastern Europe a few centuries ago. Living in the 18th century, the Ba’al Shem Tov inspired such devotion among his followers that he is still held in great reverence even now.

Many stories are told of this charismatic man whose teaching was collected and handed down after his death. The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, writing in the 20th century, said of his name, “the term ‘Baal Shem Tov’ signifies a man who lives with and for his fellowmen on the foundation of his relation to the divine.”

In this instance, his teaching starts with a realistic view of human life. That life was especially difficult if you had to live as a Jew in Eastern Europe some 300 years ago. Your chances of being persecuted because of your religion were excellent and, almost surely, you lived in poverty.

Was there any way of changing this grinding way of life, asks the teacher. In putting the question, he suggests an image of daily life as a piece of fruit. The outside many be rough and prickly but there may be some way of changing it as the material nears its core, of turning it from bitter to sweet.

The rabbi’s first answer - - raising oneself toward the longing for true goodness - - does not impress us as surprising. He sets forth a spiritual task that sounds quite familiar. Most masters of the inner life would assent to his recommendation.

Developing in yourself the desire for true goodness sounds like a beautiful agenda for one’s whole life. The phrase “true goodness” suggests that one will encounter false goods, those substitutes for the real thing that often deceive us.

Also the instruction “raising yourself” teaches us that we must move to a higher plane if we are to lay hold of true goodness. It is above us and reaching it requires a discipline that stretches our capacities.

This first answer coming from the Ba’al Shem Tov moves the heart immediately.  Who among us does not aspire to true goodness? Does not everybody deep down want to be good, to grasp goodness and never let it go?

But it’s the second question and answer that throw us off stride. What is true goodness, the teacher asks? Perhaps we think we already know the answer, something like cultivating within ourselves spiritual perfection.

To our surprise and perhaps dismay, the rabbi’s response is outer rather than inner directed. For him, true goodness is perfect compassion. That means entering into the suffering and problems of others and responding with sympathy and understanding.

Once more, we discover how central compassion is to the religious spirit. When you come right down to it, caring for and about other people is more important than looking toward ourselves.

Of course, we must have compassion for ourselves too. But that comes comparatively easily, at least for those who know themselves loved by God. That knowledge allows us to sympathize with ourselves in the difficulties we encounter.

But then, reaching out to love our neighbor as ourselves, that is the test of true goodness, says the Ba’al Shem Tov - -  and not only he, but most of the other great spiritual teachers as well. They form a kind of chorus: if you want to be good, first be compassionate toward others.

These masters love to put things in a nutshell, to make us think, reflect, and pray. The words discussed here provide ample material for contemplation. They might even help us to find some sweetness at the core of existence, no matter how hard we find our lives to be.

Richard Griffin