Earning a Good Name

By Glen Pickus, Temple Beth Or | Jul 18, 2018

Like many religions, Judaism attempts to explain the unexplainable.

What really resonates with me is how Jewish ethics and teachings can make the seemingly incomprehensible not only knowable but simply so.

Most, if not all, religions attempt to answer that most fundamental of questions, “Why are we here?”

The Jewish response is simply, “To make the world a better place.”

How we do that is up to us, but do it we must.

We do get guidance, though.

The Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Ancestors) is a compilation of ethical teachings and maxims that are part of Judaism’s oral commentaries on the torah, the Mishnah, which was developed in ancient times and put down in writing around the end of the second or early third century C.E.

One of the lessons in Pirkei Avot is that the crown of a good name, a shem tov, is the highest level of achievement a person can reach.

Judaism teaches the only things that matter after we die are how we lived our life; what our actions and good deeds were. All of these can be grouped into one concept – shem tov.

Shem tov is the tangible measurement of what it means to live a good life. We know a person has lived a good life, and thus has made the world a better place, when mere mention of their name brings up memories of good things.

I use the concept of shem tov to help me with everyday decisions as well as the most significant decisions in my life. Fortunately, I have a model to follow on how to do that.

I don’t remember much about the memorial gathering following my father’s death 18 years ago. However, I still vividly remember how many of his peers from the contracting world were there, who felt obligated to attend, and what they told me about my dad that I was ignorant of.

They all told me different versions of the same story about how my father helped them succeed in the world by freely offering his knowledge, business insights, and support (financially and otherwise).

And how he was the most honest person they knew.

It wasn’t just his peers that he helped. It had been years since I had been in touch with my next door neighbor and best friend when I was growing up, who as an adult largely was known for getting in trouble. Yet, there he was at Dad’s memorial.

When I asked him why he came, he gave me a look of astonishment because in his mind he had no choice. He told me my father had bailed him out of trouble more than once and tried to counsel him to live a better life.

This, too, was new information for me. While it is clear to me Dad saw his purpose in life was to attain a shem tov, it was equally clear that he wasn’t interested in being feted for being a good guy.

Life is difficult and complex. However, I find living my life to be manageable when I focus on trying to earn myself a shem tov.


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