Our Primary Motivation to Do Good

Lilli Kornblum, a board member at Temple Sholom of Chicago, writes about the choice that we have of whether or not to come to the aid of someone appearing to be in distress, about her desire to do good, and how it relates to the week’s torah portion, Bo. Lilli gave the following text as a sermon at her congregation on Friday.

One of the benefits of living in Lakeview is the proximity to summertime events. We, are ringside to Market Days and other festivals, Pride, and of course the occasional World Series. So it is not surprising, that from time to time one may encounter individuals who may be enjoying one of these events just a little more enthusiastically than most.

And so it was last fall, when on my way and running late to my first Slichot service at Temple Sholom I encountered a young man dressed completely in Cubs paraphernalia laying stretched and still on the sidewalk, with an unspilled cup of beer close at hand. Now this was my first Slichot at Temple Sholom and I was anxious and excited to get here so I decided that the street was busy and he was probably ok and someone would call for help if he were not. In my head I see myself gracefully leaping over his outstretched legs but in reality I think I just side stepped him and continued moving quickly on.

I’m sure all of you have already recognized the irony in this situation. In my enthusiasm for beginning the process of examining my life and actions, and exploring the path to self improvement I made the conscious decision to ignore someone most likely in need of help. Well not for long. About 10 or 15 steps later I turned back and called 911. At about that point the young man in question began to move somewhat purposefully making it seem likely that he had indeed taken an poorly considered nap. But, I finished my call and came to Slichot a bit late but much better prepared.

Negotiating this experience brought to mind two previous opportunities I had been given to choose whether or not to come to the aid of someone appearing to be in distress. I shared these with many of you several years ago during RH services, and still I reflect upon them.

In both instances I was on a public bus. In one, the one I prefer to remember, I took action quickly and loudly and gave absolutely no thought to how I looked to the other people around me or to whether I might be over reacting. It was clear to me that intervention was needed and that it had to be first hand. The result was positive and satisfying.

In the second, the need for assistance was less clear and immediate and I became self conscious of whether calling for help would make me sound foolish. So I hesitated and debated internally and finally did not make the call. That failure to act, and especially the reason haunted me for quite some time. Over time I was able to convince myself that there really had been no need for assistance but that doesn’t matter. I was bothered at the thought that personal embarrassment could prevent me from providing aid. From doing the right thing.

As you may imagine, since then I have called 911 more often than the average individual. No second guessing or over thinking. Sometimes the need is clearly valid. Sometimes it is debatable. I’m fairly sure that on one occasion I may have confused a large bag of trash with a human body and I’ll never know whether or not somebody was actually placing a bomb in a trashcan outside the Museum of Contemporary Art, but I won’t have to lose sleep over whether not I should have stepped up.

I would like to say that my primary motivation is an instinct and desire to do good, but I know that it is at least 50% is the desire to avoid having to rethink and relive a poorly made decision.

Reading this week’s Torah portion, Bo, in which the we read of the final plagues and our miraculous escape to freedom, led me to re-examine these memories.

For many of us, it is the best known portion, but there is a piece of the story that we don’t know or at least I don’t know and it called to me. What was Pharaoh was thinking after the Israelites escaped.? We know that he had been given several opportunities to grant their freedom and to avoid the terrible toll of the plagues but that he made a disastrous decision time and time again. Was it based on pride? Based on stubbornness? Based on a fear of appearing weak? If I lay restless after failing to make a call for assistance what could he be thinking in the aftermath of such devastation? What if a different decision on his part could have prevented the destruction of Egypt’s crops and cattle, the death of innocent sons, and the destruction of the army. Was living with and acknowledging the consequences of his horrible failure to act his 11th plague?

As I imagine it is for you, it is difficult for me to except at face value the reason we are given for Pharaoh’s repeated refusal to set free the Israelite slaves. The phrase, God hardened pharaohs heart, is difficult to process. It is troubling to consider that God actively caused Pharaoh to repeatedly deny freedom after sending Moses and Aaron to make the demand and even after multiple plagues.

It seems to me that those words have cannot be considered simply as written. I believe, instead, that God gave Pharaoh the ability to make his own decisions, the ability to decide how and why to act. The same ability each of us has been given. And if pharaohs heart hardened toward the Israelites, that is not because God decreed that it should, but because Pharaoh used his God given freedom of will to make that decision on his own and in that way God harderend his heart.

I suppose on some level it would be nice to be able to credit our bad decisions, failures to act, or inappropriate actions on God’s intervention. Imagine how many mental health professionals would have to shut their doors if that were the case. For that matter imagine how poorly attended Yom Kippur services would probably be. We might show up and say, “I did a few things I’m not happy about, or I didn’t do a few things I should have, but since God hardened my heart I didn’t have much choice. I’m going to get something to eat does anybody want to come?”.

And that’s why tonight as we remember and give gratitude for the amazing miracle of our freedom I am given to believe that we are witness to and surrounded by uncountable miracles every moment of every day. What could be more miraculous than people, so many people, who have the ability to determine their own actions choosing to act justly?

In spite of being overwhelmed by how much there is to do, or how difficult and challenging life can be, or feeling exhausted, or the impulse to act out of self interest, people step up at every moment of to take care of each other, take care of the stranger, take care of the world, and take care of the earth. The sacred duty of tukkun olam is never forgotten even though we have the freedom to ignore it and even though it is difficult to keep going. And that surly is a miracle.

It is not my intent to stand here tonight and explain to you why you should be using your free will to make good choices. I know you, and I have been astonished over and over again by your passion and your actions and your commitment.I know that each in your own style and for your own cause or causes have chosen over and over and over again to fight the good fight and do the good deed and that you will continue to do so.

I am here to say how proud I am to be surrounded by the people in this room and of the greater Temple shalom community. This is a place of miracles, and I know that because I know you and because I have gotten to know some wonderful and amazing people in the greater congregation and because I know the work that is being done by the Social Justice Committee on a myriad of issues.

I am very happy that we are joined this evening by Matty Major, Co-Chair of the Social Justice Committee and fellow Board Member. Matty has brought information on the Committee’s work and will be here after services to answer your questions and happily welcome you to join their efforts.


Lilli, who was previously co-President of Congregation Or Chadash, Chicago’s first LGBTQ congregation, now serves on the board of Directors for Temple Sholom of Chicago. Lilli joined Temple Sholom’s board shortly after the two congregations merged in the fall of 2016.