Betting the world on the goodness of people

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Rabbi Evan J. Krame

This week’s Torah portion is Ki Tisa, Exodus 30:11 – 34:35.

eBay transformed the way people transact business. What was so revolutionary is that unseen buyers and sellers on eBay had faith in the internet and trust in each other. The foundational assumption of eBay users is that most people are good and trustworthy. Perhaps that lesson came from Torah.

Internet commerce sites like eBay, Air BnB, Uber and TripAdvisor are premised on the belief that people are basically good and honest. For example, reviews are posted on these websites by buyers and sellers. Through these interactions, the honest assessments of users build a marketplace. People want to believe that people are essentially good, and that goodness should be rewarded, sometimes with a positive review.

Internet commerce is also famously susceptible to fraud. From damaging reviews to pernicious scams, the worst elements of society take advantage of our belief that people are essentially decent.

Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay, described the company’s founding principles. He said, “We believe people are basically good. We believe everyone has something to contribute. We encourage you to treat others the way that you want to be treated.” His words recall biblical axioms, some even found in this week’s Torah reading, Ki Tisa.

Parshat Ki Tisa underscores Omidyar’s words. Ki Tisa tells a harrowing story that ultimately confirms a belief that people are basically good. Moses left the people to ascend Sinai and receive the laws. After an extended absence, the people grew fearful. Aaron, the high priest, placated the people with the creation of a god substitute, in the form of a golden calf. Throughout Jewish history, this episode represents the greatest apostasy.

The Hebrews were a holy people and treasured by God. God saved them from slavery through a process of plagues and miracles. Yet, when they were fearful and uncertain, they lost faith in God.

God’s reaction? God said to Moses, I will wipe out these stiff-necked people and start again. Moses convinced God not to pursue such harsh justice. People should not be evaluated by their worst moments.

While we might assume that every person is basically good, the possibility of doing evil is ever present. Torah teaches that bad behavior deserves punishment. When we judge people we should not limit our assessment of others to their failings and worst moments.

As Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative has said, “Each of us is more than the worst thing we have ever done.” Moses taught that lesson to God.

What does this have to do with eBay? Pierre Omidyar created eBay by betting on goodness. Omidyar knew that most people will be honest most of the time. Some will lie and cheat and steal, but the eBay enterprise succeeded because we have faith that most people are basically good. Accordingly, eBay flourished to become the third most used ecommerce website.

Torah demonstrates that even a holy nation can behave badly. Thankfully, Moses was able to recalibrate a desperate situation. Moses navigated past the Hebrew people’s worst moment. From the depths of their depravity, Moses reoriented God and the people toward the promise of their potential.

Sustaining hope and an expansive view of human nature are both essential to the growth of civilization. Goodness remains the dominant character trait for most people. We all will confront people who lie or steal or cause harm. Our challenge is not to judge people by their worst behaviors in those moments. Rather, our world will improve as we nurture each person’s potential to contribute from the goodness within them.

As Anne Frank noted in the depths of her hiding during World War II, “‘I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.” ■

Rabbi Evan J. Krame is rabbi of The Jewish Studio, in Rockville.

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