High Holy Day Lessons from “The Good Place”

High Holy Day Lessons from “The Good Place”

In a very short time, “The Good Place” has become one of my all-time favorite TV shows. The characters are well-rounded, the plot twists keep you guessing, and most of all, every episode raises deep philosophical questions. So as Jews begin to prepare for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and Season 4 of the show starts soon, let’s look at a few lessons that “The Good Place” can teach us in preparation for 5780.

1. Your actions matter

If you haven’t seen the show, the premise is that Eleanor Shellstrop (played by Kristen Bell) has died, and ends up in the Good Place. Even though it’s not exactly “heaven,” the Good Place is a paradise reserved for only the best people who had ever lived on Earth. She realizes that given how she acted in her life — including being the top salesperson for a drug company that defrauded the sick and elderly — there clearly had been a mistake. So to try to avoid going to the Bad Place and thus being tortured for eternity, she enlists the help of moral philosopher Chidi Anangonye (William Jackson Harper) to help her become a better person, even after death.

The driving force of the show is the “point system” that determines whether someone ends up in the Good Place or the Bad Place. Michael (played by Ted Danson), the “architect” of the neighborhood where Eleanor and Chidi live, explains it this way on their first day in the afterlife:

During your time on Earth, every one of your actions had a positive or a negative value, depending on how much good or bad that action brought into the universe. Every sandwich you ate, every time you bought a magazine, every single thing you did had an effect that rippled out over time, and ultimately created some amount of good or bad.

So, according to the show’s system, “poisoning a river” would dock you 4010.55 points, while “maintaining your composure in line at a water park in Houston” would net you 61.14 points. Apparently, I’d automatically lose 99.15 points since I root for the Yankees, but if I ended slavery, I’d gain a whopping 814,292.09 points. There’s even an “accounting office” filled with books to record everyone’s actions and ultimately determine a point total.

This image is reminiscent of one we see over Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — “The Book of Life,” with our actions marked down to gauge how good we were in the past year. The liturgy imagines God sitting in judgment over us, looking at each and every choice we made, determining whether we helped or hurt the world at large — and by exactly how much.

That framework can be helpful for us to realize the ways we may have inadvertently hurt someone, since we tend to focus much more on the hurt we felt than the hurt we did to others. We tend to excuse our own poor behavior, and forget about how our actions impact others. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur force us to think about how we treated others, and all the good or bad we brought into the universe.

That’s why Eleazar ben Azariah teaches that “for sins between human beings, Yom Kippur does not atone until a person appeases their fellow.” We need to be reminded that in general, our intentions are less important than the effects of our actions, and if we did hurt someone — whether intentionally or not — it’s on us to try to make it right.

And yet…

2. A “point system” isn’t the best way to judge your actions

As “The Good Place” progresses, the characters begin to question the point system itself. In one episode, when Michael is discussing Eleanor’s actions and whether she should stay in the Good Place, he says, “This is not little league. There is no award for most improved player.” Chidi’s response? “Well, maybe there should be.”

In this light, it’s helpful to remember that there’s no ultimate moment when we will say, “Now I’m a good person.” There’s no endpoint. Rather, our job is to help ourselves and our world become better here and now.

Indeed, when Michael Schur, creator of the show, started to play with the concept of a show set in the afterlife, he started by exploring a variety of religious conceptions of life after death. But then, he said, “I stopped doing research because I realized it’s about versions of ethical behavior, not religious salvation.”

And the challenge of ethical behavior is that there are a variety of ways to determine whether something is “good” or not.  Dr. Paul Root Wolpe, who is a professor of bioethics, a member of Congregation Shearith Israel in Atlanta, and part of Sinai and Synapses‘ project Scientists in Synagogues, made a striking point about ethics in a TEDx talk.

Everyone…can fill in this sentence: “Ethics is about what is…”? Right and wrong. That’s what we’re taught. And in fact, it’s true when we’re taught it in 1st grade, 2nd grade – don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t hit your classmates.

But adult ethical decisions are not about right and wrong. That may be a shocking thing to hear. But in fact, if you think about the ethical challenges you’ve had in your life, or ethical conversations you have with your friends, it is almost always about two “right” things in conflict, two values, both of which can’t be honored …. Should a judge show mercy or justice? Your friend cheats on a test – loyalty to a friend or obligation to the institution?

Perhaps that’s why Chidi, as a moral philosopher, is constantly tormented by indecision. He has largely gotten past the struggles of honesty, or impulse control, or anger management. Rather, he’s torn by the desire to navigate multiple different — and often contradictory — ethical frameworks.

Similarly, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are not just about the ways we missed the mark and making sure we get as many “points” as possible (and also to avoid losing them!). Instead, the High Holy Days are designed to confront our deepest questions, without looking for specific answers. What are my highest values? Have I lived up to them? If not, why not, and how can I do better?

It’s OK to realize that our ethical decisions may be complicated and imperfect. What we need to is make sure we are reconnecting to our most core values.

And that leads to the third lesson “The Good Place” can help us appreciate these upcoming holidays:

3. We need some help to act ethically, and ritual can help us

The image of the ten days of repentance is not as much “sin” as it is “missing the mark” — we wanted to act the way we would like, and we didn’t quite reach our goal. But why don’t we act perfectly?

The simple answer is that thinking about big, existential questions is hard. Our brains and our bodies often lead us to make a decision that’s easy in the short term, and we don’t always think about the impact down the road. 

And as Michael Schur remarked in a New York Times article, he wanted “The Good Place” to highlight the day-to-day nature of trying to be good:

You have to work at it, every day. It’s so hard. The temptation will always be there to go: ‘Oh, no one’s watching. No one’s looking. I’ll just do this.’…And now the next thing is like, whatever — you cheat on your taxes. And you get away with it, because government bureaucracy is bad at picking up on tiny errors people make. And you’re like: All right, nobody got hurt. Because you’re not thinking about the school 82 miles away that couldn’t afford new textbooks because they didn’t get enough tax revenue and had to lower the school budget. All you’re thinking about is, I saved $400 by cheating on my taxes, that’s pretty cool. The window just keeps shifting, and eventually you become the kind of person who is making the bad, selfish, wrong decision by default instead of the good one. And then 15 years have gone by.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur exist to make sure it’s a maximum of one year, not 15, that we think back on our actions and get on track again. And rituals can help us, since they help us lighten the cognitive load. Just as you know you have to brush your teeth every day, or drink your morning coffee, we can, in the words of the late Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, “ethicize the ritual and ritualize the ethical.”

Indeed, philosopher Christian Miler, author of The Character Gap: How Good Are We?, notes that religious rituals can help easily help us become better people. Fasting can teach us about self-control. Prayer can lead us to gratitude. Experiencing a modicum of awe and fear creates humility. The words and actions of the High Holy Days help give us ready-made tools to help us become better people.

Which brings us to one final teaching:

4. We are part of a community

Chidi’s favorite book is T. M. Scanlon’s What We Owe to Each Other, and the ultimate message of “The Good Place” is that we need others in order to become our best selves. As Professor Darcia Narvaez notes in a review of the show, “Our species’ heritage is to be empathic and cooperative… That’s why you need good friends to help you realize and really take the action you plan to, that kindly help you shape yourself so that you are coordinated at all levels.” 

And so on these High Holy Days, we need to be in community to reinforce our ethics, and remind ourselves of the people we wish to be. All of our prayers are in the first person plural, to teach us that we are all in this world together — we have all made mistakes, and we all can help each other get back on track.

For me, then, my goal in 5780 will not be to get into “the Good Place.” Instead, with the support of my friends and family, my goal will simply be to help all of us create a better place, here on Earth.

Or, to paraphrase Eleanor Shellstrop, struggling like all of us to help us grow, “Our fates may be sealed. But I think we have one move left: We can try.”

Shanah tovah!


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