All Good Deeds Go Unpunished

Dov Snow Ph.D. Publisher


Imagine for a second that you are standing in the desert with hundreds of thousands of tired, hot, and sweaty refugees fleeing from some of the worst torture and brutality in all of humanity;  imagine that you are leaving the only home you had ever known and travelling in one of most unwelcome regions of the world.  After an extended period of time, you finally stop for a well-deserved drink break.  Moshe gets up and speaks to the rock hoping for water, and his well-documented efforts of persuasion are ultimately futile, and he hits the rock.  Who could blame Moshe for this smallest of infractions?  Most watching this scene would most likely react in the same way, “Let’s give Moshe Rabbeinu a pass on this one, he does so much for all of us.”     

There is a relatively new field of study in social psychology called moral licensing.  It is spearheaded by a wonderfully brilliant psychologist named Daniel Effron, who received his Ph.D. from Stanford University, is an Associate Professor of Behavioral Economics at London Business School, and has previously taught at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. Dr. Effron challenges our romantic views of good deeds, that a Mitzvah may not lead to another Mitzvah. According to Dr. Effron moral licensing occurs when evidence of a person’s virtue frees him or her to act less-than-virtuously.  What this means is that subconsciously, a previous good deed “gives us the permission” to behave amorally in the future.  

In 2009, Dr. Effron’s team found that individuals who had publicly endorsed President Obama had a significantly increased tendency to express non-politically correct views about race.  Effron’s team posited that the ability to vote for an African-American President “gave cover” to appearing prejudiced while making other decisions.  This study has been replicated successfully several times with many populations and ethnicities. This begs the following question: how does a mitzvah beget another mitzvah?  How would Dr. Effron explain this universal truth of karma?  How could Dr. Effron argue with countless studies and common sense? 

I think the fault lies in the original study itself.  Dr. Effron studied individuals who had publicly supported the president, and that makes all the difference in the world.  A public display of virtue for the display’s sake is not a true act of good, it is a stunt. A mitzvah that is done with a lev shalom (full heart), for the purpose of doing good, is an act that begets another mitzvah.  Perhaps Dr. Effron can look into the effects of a mitzvah gemura. 

I realize that writing this editorial as the Publisher of this newsmagazine may seem hypocritical, as my job is to shine the brightest light, and it is with this responsibility I ask for your help.  I would like our paper to highlight the individuals, organizations, and institutions doing amazing things that no one knows or talks about.  Here is one such story about my dear friend Reuven. 

When I spoke to Reuven this past Thursday he was hoarse and sniffling, sounding exhausted both physically and emotionally as he told me “I’m a little tired”.  You see, Reuven has been working 20 hour days for the past 3 weeks.  He sent me a picture one day with the caption “I’m making for 1000 ppl tonight’s dinner by myself” and I had a rare glimpse of clarity that must be part of Hashem’s master plan.  There is no way a kid, one of ten from Roosevelt Avenue in Far Rockaway, a veteran of the United States Army, and at age 17 didn’t even weigh 100 pounds soaking wet could be in Houston without direct divine intervention.  I won’t bore you with the details (prepping, cooking, serving, cleaning, demolition, construction, schlepping, crying, hand-holding and hugging),  because while remarkable and worthy of praise; this is a regular thing for Reuven.  This is who he is.  Thank you for being there for all of us. 

I ask you again to please share with us stories of love and unity, faith and community, friendship and family. 

Have a happy, healthy and sweet New Year