Rabbi David’s Yom Kippur Morning talk 5781
As I’ve been saying for a while, this morning I’m going to talk about The Good Place, a TV show that aired on NBC for four seasons, which ended in January (to be accurate, I’m going to use The Good Place to talk about some ideas that I think are important for us to be thinking about right now, on Yom Kippur morning, but we’ll get to those in a bit). The Good Place is a sitcom about the afterlife; it’s set on Earth, in the appropriately named Good Place and Bad Place, and in several other creatively imagined otherworldly settings. The show was made by Michael Schur, a Jewish writer and actor who had a small part in The Office, and who’s also overseen some of my other recent favorite shows including Parks and Recreation, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine.
The Good Place portrays an understanding of life on Earth and the afterlife that, while not traditionally Jewish, is somewhat common in Western culture. In the show, during their time on Earth, humans are evaluated using a point system, in which everything they ever do results in positive or negative points; later in the series, we also learn that the number of points you earn from each thing you do is based on how those actions end up affecting other people. Whether they obviously belong there or not, people reach the Good Place – the place in the afterlife where you want to end up – because of how many points they earned during their life. This idea is used for comic effect at times, but it’s a foundation of the universe in the show. It also embodies a clear picture of what the show’s universe does and doesn’t consider to be important. Doing good deeds and helping other people is valued, while being selfish, and doing things that have a negative impact on other people, isn’t. The moral message of the show seems to be that doing good is the task of humanity, and the reward for doing this is what happens to us after we die. If we spend our lives being selfish and self-centered, we will eventually spend eternity being tortured by demons who take sincere sadistic delight in making us miserable with horrible-sounding tortures that they gleefully enforce. On the other hand, if we’re one of the few people who pretty much always do good deeds, we can instead spend eternity endlessly attending restaurant openings and enjoying flying day. It’s a pretty simple system.
The universe of The Good Place seems to posit that while each human’s time on Earth is primarily about whether you’re altruistic or selfish and self-centered, the consequence of our conduct – how we spend eternity – ends up being the measure of who we were as a person. For most of the show’s episodes, doing good on Earth is actually not its own reward. What you’ve done on this planet for however long you lived here results in a zero-sum game: you either accumulated enough points for your experience of eternity to be blissful – or you didn’t, and your experience will be miserable. There’s no opportunity for growth and change, and there’s no middle ground. Your final score is static, not dynamic; learning to be better and do better as your life proceeds doesn’t ultimately matter, if your previous conduct was bad enough to cement a negative point total. And because your time on Earth is so chronologically limited compared to the infinite amount of time you spend in the Good or Bad Place, the system seems to imply that however much good or bad you do on Earth is relatively insignificant, when compared to what you get to do for eternity. While doing good for others is unquestionably more helpful for others than not, from a broader point of view, the main reason to do good in this system is so that your eternal experience is a pleasant one. Individuality and self-interest seem to be the primary motivators for most of what happens.
All of this runs counter to traditional Jewish ideas about why we should be good and what the consequences of being good are – which means that most of The Good Place seems like a not particularly Jewish show, and might have you wondering why I’m talking about it today. For one thing, Jews don’t spend a lot of time thinking or talking about about the afterlife. We have phrases like Olam Haba – the world to come – and Sheol – some kind of purgative place that’s supposedly below us; but we’re never explicitly told how to get to these places, or when we might get there, or what might happen if we get there. These ideas are never given anything close to enough of a description to become the reasons for everything we do or don’t do.
In Judaism, we generally say that since we don’t know what happens to us after we die, we don’t spend very much time thinking about it – which is a good thing, because there is so much work for us to do in this world, the world that we do know about. This is a world filled with beauty and amazement – manifold delights that we consider it a blessing to experience. It’s also a world in which people lack food and shelter and sustenance and livelihood, a world in which there is war and strife and thirst for power and excessive self-importance, a world in which other people suffer because too many of us are too focused on ourselves. We live in a world in which there is so much to experience, and so much to work on, that also worrying about other worlds at the same time doesn’t make sense. How could we fit that in?
Judaism teaches that we do good for things for others because that makes others’ lives better. Period. We feed the hungry so that they don’t hunger. We fight against white supremacy and racism, so that people won’t be the victims of racism, and won’t be racist. We make sure to spend time with our children, so that they feel loved. We celebrate holidays together, so that we can make meaning out of our days. Judaism isn’t about accumulating a score – it’s about doing the best we can, every day, to make the world around us a better place. We don’t know what exists outside of this world, so we don’t live for a hypothetical eternal utopia that exists somewhere else. What we know is that our time here is finite, and that the amount of time that we have to do good, the number of opportunities that we have to make the world around us better, is limited.
I think this is why the system of The Good Place can feel so antithetical to Jews (I’ll note that one of you wrote to me after watching the first couple of episodes of the show and said ‘this is very funny, but what does it have to do with Judaism?’). The infinite afterlife, the part of the system that’s so important in the show’s universe, feels weightless and indulgent when what you’re used to thinking of as important is finite. And, the fight to protect that infinite afterlife might feel frivolous when your experience of existence is as a rush to do what’s needed in a limited amount of time. I think one reason that we’re a people who need a legislated day off once a week is because we’ve been taught for our entire lives, both implicitly and explicitly, to feel that there’s always more to do, and never enough time to do it all. Thinking of anything good in our world as being infinite runs counter to our makeup and our experience.
Which is why I think the end of The Good Place is so important, and why I didn’t decide to talk about the show on this morning until I saw the last few episodes. For those who didn’t make it that far: in the third season, the show’s main characters learn that far too few people ever enter the Good Place, and they note how unrealistic it is for nearly every human who ever lived to end up in the Bad Place. They challenge this status quo – a system that has existed for as long as humanity has existed – and after many misadventures, including multiple reincarnations both in the neighborhood of the afterlife, as well as on Earth itself – they end up having the opportunity to plead their case in front of The Judge Of All Existence. They convince The Judge that the system is broken, and although for a while she plans to erase all of existence and start over again, they ultimately come up with a better system that they persuade her to put into place. Upon reaching the afterlife, every human will undergo psychological tests of their moral character, giving them the opportunity to prove that they’re capable of personal growth, and of actually becoming better people. Each individual will have the opportunity to repeat the tests over and over again, with the built-in assumption that many of them can eventually experience real growth, and merit getting to the Good Place. Having established this new system, the main characters finally get to go to the real Good Place.
When they get there, they find one last problem awaiting them. In the real Good Place, everything is, by definition, completely perfect. People get whatever they want, whenever they want it, and this continues indefinitely. The problem is that the highly altruistic group of people who are living there have become shells of their former selves, because nothing that happens to them has any meaning. Endless wish-fulfillment is lovely at first, but eventually every fulfilled desire starts to blend together into a formless blob without definition. As Hypatia of Alexandria – an Ancient Greek philosopher the main characters meet there – says, “When perfection goes on forever, you become this glassy-eyed mush person.” The main characters realize that what’s missing from the Good Place is the potential for your time there to end. So, they create an end: they build a door that people in the Good Place have the option to walk through at any time, which will permanently end their journey. The residents of the Good Place are relieved, and they immediately start to find joy in their ‘permanent vacation,’ as their utopian afterlife is described. It’s only when they know that a real ending is available to them, that the residents of the Good Place can enjoy their reward.
All of which brings us to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. One of the most important teachings I know about Yom Kippur is that it can be thought of as a rehearsal for your own death. In the past, some of you have told me that you don’t like this idea – our death is certainly not something for which most of us would want to rehearse. However, Yom Kippur is a day on which we don’t eat, drink, wash, or make love, all while wearing the garment in which will be buried – when put that way, I think it’s hard to not see the connection. Although the traditional reason for suspending these everyday activities is so we can more closely focus on the day’s work of Teshuvah, repentance, the lessons of The Good Place the show are also relevant here. Just as existence without an end loses context and meaning, so does a season of inner work, and a year’s worth of of atonement and repentance. There is no more definitive end to both – really, to anything – than a day of simulated death, and the finality that comes with it.
The imagery, liturgy, and rituals of Yom Kippur express an immediacy, an urgency, that is too easily misplaced during the rest of the year, when – like the long-time residents of the Good Place – we can feel that we have an infinite amount of time in which to accomplish the things that we know we need to do. By telling us that the Gates of Judgment are only open for one day, by telling us that God is paying particular attention to our prayers on this one day, by telling us that God is making decisions about who will live and who will die in the coming year on this one day, Yom Kippur pushes us to finally do the work of repentance and transformation that we have to do (work that we may have long been avoiding). Yom Kippur is the Day of Judgement and the Day of Atonement, but knowing that the gates are closing at the end of the Ne’ilah service also makes this the Day of Urgency, and the Day of Getting To Work.
Friends, it’s my hope that today gives each of us the opportunity to reflect on, and to come to realize, what the work is that we each need to do, as individuals and as a community. Whatever our work is – the interpersonal work of repairing relationships, the communal work of caring for our congregation, the civic work of political engagement, the social work of fighting racism, addressing societal problems, and easing corrosive divides, the absolutely essential work of caring for our ailing planet – this is the moment to do Teshuvah: to turn ourselves in a new direction and to commit ourselves to making our world not just a good place, but a better place. As the end of these Yamim Nora’im, these Days of Awe, draws near, we are obligated to recognize that our opportunities to do this work aren’t infinite, and that if we don’t embrace this moment as the time to do good, to do better, than we run the risk of spending a great deal of time being tortured by our own demons, and those of the world around us, because of the work we won’t have done. May this Yom Kippur be a day on which we leave behind the stagnation of infinite self-concern, and instead truly turn towards growth and change, towards making our world a better place. Ken yehi ratzon – may this be God’s will. And let us all say together, Amen.