Strategic Acts of Kindness –
Teachings On Doing Good From
the Bible, the Tanya, and Hinduism
an article by Gregory Johnson
Simple Sin. The concept of “sin” usually relates to doing something that violates cultural taboos or religious teachings. According to this simple understanding, one who does nothing wrong, has not sinned. So, presumably, a person who can slip through life, not violating any religious laws or cultural taboos, has managed to not sin. However, most religious teachings go beyond this simple definition of sin.
Wages of Sin. A broader and more holistically organic definition of sin is provided by the apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans (Romans 6:23) where he states, “the wages of sin is death.” This statement can be understood to mean that things which cause death (or diminish life) are sin. That is to say, “sin is that which harm us,” or “things that harm us are sin.” This is why some contemporary Christian groups prohibit or discourage practices such as smoking tobacco. Although the Bible does not expressly forbid smoking tobacco, it is understood to be “sin” because it leads to sickness or accelerated death. So, there may be sins (or acts) that are not expressly identified in a religious text, yet should be avoided.
Paul’s use of the word “wages” is interesting, since wages are earnings from work. Most people think of sin as pleasurable, unlike the labor of working. Also, wages are something we earn for our labor, and deserve. So, Paul’s use of this word conveys or suggests that suffering resulting from “sin” is deserved or at least expected as the consequences of natural law (rather than moral teachings).
Almost 2000 years later, Paul’s words live on in the New Oxford American Dictionary (included on all Apple computers). If you look up the word “wages” you’ll find, among other definitions, “the result or effect of doing something considered wrong or unwise… the wages of sin is death.”
Sin as Restrictive. Paul expands on the understanding of sin in an interesting way. Sin is not only something that might lead to sickness or death, it is also understood to be anything that limits a person’s effectiveness. In Hebrews 12:1 Paul refers to sin as something that hinders and entangles us. In a very unexpected proclamation, Paul declares in his letter to the Corinthians (Corinthians 6:12), “‘Everything is permissible for me’—but not everything is beneficial. ‘Everything is permissible for me’—but I will not be mastered by anything.” He repeats these words again later in the same letter (Corinthians 10:23) when he says, “‘Everything is permissible’—but not everything is beneficial. ‘Everything is permissible’—but not everything is constructive.” These are unusual words coming from Paul, who was raised as an observant Jew to be mindful of 613 religious laws. Despite the fact that Paul (writing as a Christian) can now seemingly do whatever he wants, he chooses to avoid things that aren’t “beneficial” or “constructive,” and he avoids things that he might be mastered by. So, “sin” is defined as engaging in activities that are not beneficial or constructive, and it is sin to tangle with anything that might have mastery over you.
Sins of Omission. Having a sin-free life is not obtained by simply going through life and not doing anything bad. Sin isn’t just about what a person does, but also what they don’t do. This is expanded upon in the teachings on Omission in various religions. In chapter 1 of the Tanya (verse 17) it is written that a person who “has the opportunity to forewarn another against sinning and fails to do so is termed wicked.” This principle is also found in Ezekiel 3:18 where it is said if we see a person engaged in sin, and we “do not warn him or speak out to dissuade him from his evil ways in order to save his life, that wicked man will die for his sin, and I [G-d] will hold you accountable for his blood.” So, we are accountable for other’s sins.
Not Doing Good is Sin. In chapter one of the Tanya (verse 18), it is written that one who “neglects any positive law which he/she is able to fulfill” has sinned. James proclaims the same instruction with these words (James 4:17), “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.” These teachings are summed up in the common saying, “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”
Defining Good. The letter of James begins as a treatise on religion with the statement (James 1:27), “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress….” The point being made that religion isn’t about good talk, but about good deeds. This teaching is expanded upon in Isaiah with these words (Isaiah 58:6-7,10), “‘Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe him…spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed….'”
On Doing Good. When we do good, we feel good. Physiologically, doing good brings life and healing to our bodies. According to the Hindu teachings on Karma, not only do we feel good immediately by doing good, but goodness will continue to flow back to us. Take exercise for an example. You burn calories and feel good in the moment. Later in the day, other benefits of exercise are also enjoyed such as a boost of the immune system, increased metabolism, better digestion, enhanced mood, and improved sleep. So, exercise is a good object lesson in the dynamics and rules of Karma – the immediate and long-term residual results of doing good.
Strategic Acts of Kindness. A popular movement developed around the principle of engaging in random acts of kindness. Usually engaging in random acts of kindness will produce good in the world. However, we all know that despite our best intentions, efforts to do good can sometimes go awry. There’s a curious statement made by the prophet Balaam in the Bible (Numbers 24:13), “I could not do anything of my own accord, good or bad, to go beyond the command of the LORD.” What’s interesting in this statement is Balaam’s suggestion that he can’t even do anything good without feeling a prompting from G-d. Certainly a person shouldn’t do bad, but why not do good even without feeling a prompting from G-d? Acts of goodness are like an array of powerful homeopathic remedies that are best prescribed and administered once we fully and holistically understand a person’s situation. What we perceive as helping someone could be hindering them, or unwittingly assisting that person in doing wrong to others.
So, to summarize, the greatest acts of good are those that are strategically performed based on a holistic understanding of circumstances.
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Regarding Balaam. Below are some additional thoughts about Balaam, who (as was mentioned in the paragraph above) stated, “I could not do anything of my own accord, good or bad, to go beyond the command of the LORD.” (Numbers 24:13) The following is from Rabbis Avremel and Chaya Blesofsky of Chabad Iowa City.
You may have heard the story of Balaam before, particularly the part about Balaam hearing his donkey speak to him. To summarize: Balaam is a well-known sorcerer of his time. King Balak of Moab is afraid of the increasing size and influence of the Jews, and calls on Balaam as a kind of spiritual hit-man to “curse” the Jews “that we may smite them.” Balaam, on his journey, is delayed by a seemingly lazy donkey, and beats the donkey with his staff. The animal speaks to him: “Am I not thine donkey, upon which thou hast ridden all thy life long unto this day? Was I ever wont to do so unto thee?” This is followed by an angelic visitation, in which the angel also berates Balaam for his behavior.
Much has been written and conjectured about the miraculous nature of this event, and what it says about the sorcerer. Many have seen Balaam as an icon of evil, a heathen-for-hire who is so beyond redemption that even a dumb animal can perceive the worthlessness of his nature. Yet others recognize another side of Balaam, one which is worth examining. Consider some other quotes from this portion (named for Balak, by the way):
Numbers XXII, 12: “And G-d said unto Balaam ‘…Thou shalt not curse the people; for they are blessed.'”
XXII, 18: “And Balaam said…’If Balak would give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot go beyond the word of the L-rd.'”
XXII, 38: “And Balaam said unto Balak, ‘…the word that G-d putteth in my mouth, that shall I speak.'”
And so on. Throughout the portion, Balaam seems to shuttle between his assignment from Balak and his recognition of G-d. He instinctively recognizes the supremacy of the L-rd. He even recites what Torah refers to as parables, the most famous line from which is the Ma Tovu, which we recite at every service: “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel.”
You’ll notice throughout Torah that G-d does not spend His time communicating with just anyone. Or perhaps we should say that not everyone is open to hearing His voice. Yet Balaam is, and frequently. So is this man the embodiment of evil? Or is this a complicated person, someone who is caught between knowing what is right, yet following a strong temptation? Someone who is trying to live both earthly desires and holy missions?