The Good Place
BY AMY JOSEFA ARIEL
PARASHAT HA'AZINU DEUTERONOMY 32:1 - 32:52
18 SEPT 2017 / 27 ELUL 5777
Have you seen The Good Place? I don't mean the actual "Good Place", of course. I mean the NBC show.
No spoilers, but I will say the finale invites us to watch the whole first season again to dig more deeply into the question of what it means to be a good person. Eleanor Shellstrop is a recently deceased young woman who wakes up in "The Good Place" - a heaven-like utopia she is told is designed to reward those who have lived a righteous life. The thing is, Eleanor didn't. She is certain she isn't supposed to be there. Hoping to stay in The Good Place, Eleanor confesses to her assigned soulmate, Chidi, a university ethics professor in life, who agrees to teach her how to be a good person and avoid being discovered and sent to "The Bad Place." Surrounded by imperfect people she believes were rightfully admitted into The Good Place, Eleanor starts making ethical choices. Those choices become increasingly easier for her.
Eleanor basically illustrates for us Ben Azzai's teaching from Pirkei Avot 4:2 that we should, "Run to do the least of the commandments" and "[r]un away from a transgression, for a commandment pulls along a commandment and a transgression pulls along a transgression." In other words, doing one small mitzvah makes it easier to do another mitzvah, and doing something wrong makes it easier to do something even worse.
I've been a little obsessed with thinking about this show, and I find myself connecting "The Good Place" and my favorite name for God - HaMakom/The Place. What better - or more good - place could there be than God?
It would also be hard to miss the obvious parallels between The Good Place and Shabbat Shuvah - the Sabbath of returning. On this Shabbat between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur we are in the midst of "doing teshuvah" returning to our truest and best selves, seeking forgiveness and beginning again in a fresh new year. Like Eleanor, we are engaged in this process in community. What's more, at its core the show seems to understand whole concept of selichot, of the communal prayers during which we confess the wrongs we have committed collectively. Whatever any of us has or has not done individually, collectively we have done these things and the community we are part of shapes the people we are.
Basically, The Good Place packs in everything we do in this High Holiday season.
What about this week's parsha? Is it in there, too? I'd say so. This week we read Ha'azinu. In it, Moses sings his last song, a love poem to God and a harsh rebuke of the people, pleading with all of us to listen to him, begging us to live lives worthy of the relationship we have with God, and assuring us that as we insist on doing wrong, our enemies will overtake us and our existence will be nothing but suffering. This isn't Ki Tavo, but it's also not exceptionally comforting. But then Ha'azinu is paired with the Haftarah portion Samuel II 22:1-51, and that is a relief. David has been rescued from his enemies, including King Saul. “God is my rock, my shelter, my refuge,” David sings (22:2). He compares Saul to, shall we say, "The Bad Place" - sheol - which sounds like Saul’s name in Hebrew: Sha'ul. David affirms that the power of his enemies comes from God, and also that God is the ultimate power that will save him - and by extension, us. In Ha'azinu Moses entreats us to consider that everything comes from God, and in Samuel David comforts us that "everything" includes mercy, forgiveness, and rescue. It seems David finally hears Moses's plea and returns to God.
The literal meaning of "teshuvah" is return. Return to what? Return to where? Perhaps to one's most true self. Post-biblical Judaism insists that each of our souls, created in the image of God, is entirely suffused with goodness. We seek to return to the goodness at the center of what it really means to be human. We seek to return to God. God. HaMakom. The Place. Perhaps, The Good Place.
Goodness isn't perfect. It's all kinds of messy. What does it mean to be good? To do right? To live well? I'm not exactly sharing a novel insight when I say that it's complicated. Super complicated. And this return we are after isn't a destination; it's a journey. It can be such a struggle. It is good news that as Moses and David assure us mercy, forgiveness, and rescue are part of the fabric of the world, and we are traveling in good company.
Just ask Eleanor Shellstrop.