The ‘Good Person’ Test

From my personal experience, whenever a religious person is dragged into a discussion about religion with a combative non-religious person, the first thing the non-religious person tries to emphasise is how they / their spouse / children / siblings / whoever are ‘good people’.

The argument, which I’m sure must be familiar to other readers of Beyond BT, goes like this: “It doesn’t matter if I / they / whoever keep the mitzvot. What matters is that we are good people.”

I’ve ruminated a lot about this over the years, because without an objective guide to what constitutes a ‘good person’, anyone can claim the title. In some cultures, you can blow yourself up – killing tens of people in the process – and be acclaimed as a ‘good person’. In other cultures, it’s enough to say that you’ve ‘never hurt anyone else’. Apart from the fact that this is a massive fib – everyone has done something to hurt or upset someone else, however unintentional, accidental or minor – it also doesn’t say very much about a person’s character if that is their only claim to fame.

Case in point: an old lady is being mugged. I stand to one side and let her assailant get on with it. Maybe I try to pick her up off the floor, or maybe I don’t. But the point is, I can still claim to be a good person.

Today, ‘good’ for many people seems to be defined simply as an absence of bad – which is why someone who is just a ‘good person’ could never be called a good Jew. Because being a good Jew requires actions.

A good Jew puts on tefillin, keeps Shabbat, keeps kosher etc etc. But I don’t want to dwell on the mitvot between G-d and man in this post, as I feel that doing so often obscures the far more compelling argument about how living a Torah-true life is the single best guarantee of being a good person.

Instead, I want to look at the mitzvoth between man and man. A good Jew is required to give at least 10% of their income to tzedeka every month. Whether or not they feel like it; whether or not they have house renovations to complete or new cars to buy; whether they are rolling in green or struggling to make ends meet.

A ’good person’, by contrast, is not.

A good jew is required to treat their parents with the utmost respect – to stand up for them, to take care of them, to speak politely to them at all times, even in the midst of a heated disagreement or argument.

A good person is not.

A good Jew is commanded to always try to judge their peers favourably; to be humble; to avoid speaking loshon hara; and to do acts of kindness whenever and wherever they can.

A good person is not.

You get the idea. I know that there are many non-observant people who are real mensches; they are kind, generous, considerate of others and principled. I also know that there are many outwardly-observant people who are not; they often don’t treat other people very nicely and display all manner of character flaws.

None of us are perfect. But what all the mensches, both religious and not religious have in common is this: they would never presume to call themselves a good person, because they understand all too well that while they are making significant progress in many areas of their live, there are many other areas that still require a lot of hard work, effort and honesty.

Conversely, the world abounds in self-proclaimed good people. I know ‘good people’ who treat others incredibly insensitively – even brutally; yet they retain their ‘good persona’ in their own eyes because they never take the time to evaluate their actions objectively, and simply can’t admit to ever doing something wrong.

Sometimes the cognitive dissonance is overwhelming. I once had a conversation on a London tube with a ‘good person’ who spent half an hour complaining about anti-social behaviour and how no-one ever thinks about anyone else anymore – who then stowed his empty starbucks cup carefully next to one of the seats, before getting off, instead of taking it with him and chucking it in the bin.

Other examples: the man earning a 7 figure income who claims to be charitable because he gives a pound coin to collectors on the street; the caring relatives who always seem to schedule family get togethers on fast days, and then complain about you ‘spoiling it’ for everyone else.

I’m not a good person: I’m a person who is trying very hard to do more good things than bad in life, and who is trying very hard to identify my problem areas and to work on them.

Which is why when I get lectured by ‘good people’, particularly non-religious ones, about how I should be behaving or acting, it sometimes takes all my strength to nod, smile and pretend to agree.

I know that G-d wants me to apologise, even when it’s not my fault, if it means keeping the peace; to risk being a ‘sucker’ if it means helping a fellow jew out; and to understand that try as I might, I will always be a work in progress, and far from perfect.

The biggest irony of all is that often, it’s only my yiddishkeit that keeps me trying to build bridges and be more understanding of these ‘good people’, when left to myself, I’d prefer to have nothing to do with them. The same religious practises that they like to knock, denigrate and deny are the only reason I can smile when they tell me this, nod sympathetically and invite them back again for more food and prating.

I struggle with it, I really do, as sometimes the provocation is overwhelming. But I know that if I answer back, go on the offensive, or don’t make every effort to judge them favourably, I won’t be acting like a good jew; but I probably would be acting like a good person.

31 comments on “The ‘Good Person’ Test

  1. There are many “good Jews” who are not good people. Yes, they put on tefillin, daven three times a day and keep the strictest levels of kashrus. But the sad fact is, they are not good people. In my travels I have seen and spoke with many “good Jews” with the big black hats etc. What have I found?

    Some of them are outright racist. They use racist and/or derogatory language when talking about blacks or hispanics. Some are homophobic and use disparaging slurs to talk about gay people.

    Many will be quick to help a “fellow Jew” but would never lift a finger to help a non Jew. I thought we were all created Bitzelem Elokim?

    Some wish to live in the United States but have little if any hakaras Hatov for this country. Instead, they are more interested in talking about Israel 24/7. How many American Flags do you see displayed in frum neighborhoods on the Fourth of July or Memorial Day?

    These are just a few quick examples of what I think are “good Jews” or who are not “good people.

    I think it is a big mistake to think that a person can’t be a good person without keeping all the mitzvot. And it is also a fallacy to think that just because one keeps the mitzvot they will probably be a good person.

  2. Miriam,

    Good points on naming. Of course nobody gets up to talk about the person a kid is named after by listing all the things the person wasn’t. Everyone has z’chuyot that can be extolled when a baby is named.

    The point about Kibuv av v’em is also very important. Here you have a mitzvah asey d’oreisa going up against some vague customs.

    Furthermore an advantage a BT has is that often the living relative has a connection to the English name and not the Hebrew name. We can often “get away with” using a similar sounding Hebrew name, a male-female name exchange with a similar meaning, the same first letter, etc. Most of my kids are named for people of the opposite sex and each time the living relative was ecstatic with the name.

    Another point is that we believe that within a year after death most neshamot have gone through some type of purification process after which the neshama moves on to higher and higher levels based on the zechuyot of those that are still here. What better way to raise up a neshama than to have a namesake who is shomer Torah U’mitzvot?

  3. I just had to add this bit about naming for grandparents… my grandmother (of blessed memory) was not a Shabbos observer, yet she did light Shabbos candles, kept a (mostly) Kosher home, and even went to mikvah before she married. (Not sure if she used it during marriage, but she did tell me about going before.) She was a constant presence in my life when I was younger, constantly helping my mother with me and with my younger sister, taking us on outings, etc., and I loved her dearly. All this is what sticks in my head rather than her actual Shabbos observance, and is why I named my next daughter for her after she passed away… that and one other “small” detail of “Kibud Em” — my mother would never ever have spoken to me again if I hadn’t. There’s so much family politics over naming children, I was glad to not have to fight my mother on that one.

    And I would never make a speech about how someone I had named my child for “wasn’t frum but…” I would only focus on the positives, and that’s what I would speak about.

    But I’ve had the same conversation about “being a good person” with some of my non-religious relatives, and I really would rather not have to discuss it with them, because they’ll just take it wrong when I agree (with this post) that “good person” is meaningless and “good Jew” has specific guidelines.

  4. “How many of the Ten Commandments, everyone’s concept of God’s Greatest Hits, are even close to being observed or even properly understood by the ethcal maskil?”

    I would say secular people seem to try to keep them better and understand them better than say, tzitzis.

    I would say there is no difference whatsoever in their treatment of them, not a whit. See here for the OU’s explanation what religious obligations are entailed by the Decalogue. Arguably, “secular people” are worse on this than they are on tzitzis because they believe they are upholding the Aseres HaDibros and they are not; indeed some of them they affirmatively violate on a regular basis.

    This is no defense of those who wear tzitzis and also violate them, who, it should be clear, are more, not less, blameworthy than the tinok shenishbo.

  5. DK

    You have misused my words on so many levels. While I have no problem critizing where and when it is due, you seem to have some kind of vendetta against an entire community. I have seen many observant Jews have a problem with speaking Loshan Hara, a concept that barely exists in the secular community, but what does that prove? They know it is wrong, and many try to work on it. I have heard many lectures by Rabbis concerning avairos like cheating on your taxes, but what good does it do to compare incidences of it between observant and secular? We all have our mitzvahs that we need to work on.

    By the way, which interpretations of Judiasm say it is ok to cheat in business?

    Also: If you think secular people keep the ten commandments better than observant as a whole you are deluding yourself (remember, shabbos itself is on that list)

  6. Good person, good Jew, good post.

    The Torah and Talmud provide for us the recipe for being good Jewish people. (Also, incidentally that for being good non-Jewish people as well.)

    The problem in ascertaining who is “good” in G-d’s eyes is that no human has enough data about another human to make that assessment. Oh sure there’s the rare Hitler or Amenijad who are pretty clearly bad people, but overall we get these itty bitty snapshots of people’s lives.

    For purposes of determining a Jew’s Eidut and Neemanut there are a handful of basic “public” mitzvot that we need to be aware of. But there are thousands of other mitzvot that we can have no idea about.

    Living in Israel has been very humbling for me. I have no idea how Hashem will assess my mitzva observance as a “frum” Jew vs a chiloni who, for instance, served in the army. Maybe army service gets a million point bonus in His ledger.

    Sure we have thousands of “frum” Jews learning in Yeshivot, but what about all the other Jews who created the infrastructure that allowed those Yeshivas to be built and maintained.

    The examples are endless. I guess my point is that, baring a few really bad people, we have no way to know from mere observation who is good in G-d’s eyes and think that forces us to try to find the “good” in everyone, i.e. to be dan lecaf Z’chus. As Katrin points out, it’s not always easy, but it’s a big part of being a “frum” Jew.

  7. Bob Miller,

    “Better overall” isn’t a particularly useful measure of adherence to a specific mishput, but rather, a way to downplay the importance of a specific community’s tolerance for transgressing a mishput. It preempts improvement, and disregards those victimized, as they are not members of the “better overall” group, and should just shut up, since they’re no one to talk.

  8. DK to the contrary, I see no evidence that “frum” Jewish communities are not better overall than the other kind.

  9. Ron asked,

    “How many of the Ten Commandments, everyone’s concept of God’s Greatest Hits, are even close to being observed or even properly understood by the ethcal maskil?”

    I would say secular people seem to try to keep them better and understand them better than say, tzitzis.

    Albany Jew wrote,

    “1) If someone says he is an observant Jew and cheats and steals in business he is NOT truly observant no matter what he does with Shabbos.

    2) Don’t judge Judaism by particular Jews.”

    But is that the reality on the ground? Or do some voices in the frum community defend those who have broken mishputim precisely because they are, in fact frum?

    As for 2), well, I agree that a community cannot be judged by an individuals actions, but if a community consistently tolerates numerous individuals actions, this does say something about the community’s priorities.

    However, this only says something about the community that is, in fact, tolerating such anti-social behavior, not the ones that are not. There is no case of breaking mishputim that is accepted across the board in all traditional Jewish communities.

    So I would say that Judaism itself indeed should not be judged for those problems that are tolerated in certain communities. But specific interpretations of Judaism can be and should be judged.

  10. Ron (09:58) has reintroduced axes into this argument (“the x and y axes”). This is unfortunate, since Aryeh-Baltimore’s May 30th, 2007 14:32 mention of ax-murder has caused some problems already.

  11. You may be placing more weight on the concept of mishpatim than it was meant to bear, DK. Even in simple cases, moral choices may not be what they they seem. So gentiles, yes, are charged with the task of acting in the two-dimensional moral world, but the Torah places a third dimension on all Jews. Thus a good person tells us to each his own, and always lend a hand; the Torah says a seducer to idol worship whose camel breaks down, let’s say, is not only not lent a hand, not tolerated – he is killed.

    Get past stealing and “simple” murder and assault and moral clarity on the x and y axes get murky really fast. How many of the Ten Commandments, everyone’s concept of God’s Greatest Hits, are even close to being observed or even properly understood by the ethcal maskil?

    Well asked, though, Deek. Not surprising you’d be animated by this provocative post.

  12. I’m Jewish,

    Two thoughts:

    1) If someone says he is an observant Jew and cheats and steals in business he is NOT truly observant no matter what he does with Shabbos.

    2) Don’t judge Judaism by particular Jews.

    (don’t be soured, find someone truly inspirational)I guess that’s three.

  13. DK,

    Every person, on his/her level, is able to intuit some idea of proper behavior, but Torah is needed to bring that behavior up to the level we were created for.

    We give the benefit of the doubt to Jews in general, unless—for example—they have shown some public, obsessive contempt for Judaism, as some bloggers have, for example.

  14. David Linn,

    I’m not sure that’s completely true. The Torah itself divides the mitzvos into chukim and mishputim, and the rabbis understand that only the demands of most of the general ideas of the mishputim are incumbent upon the gentiles.

    But it would seem that these are not limited to gentiles, in that following the mishputim do, in fact, provide a basic morality. And that most Orthodox Jews — even ultra-Orthodox Jews — do not really consider Jews breaking the chukkim as proof of depravity like breaking the mishputim.

    For instance — when a secular Jew breaks shabbos, or eats something non-kosher, many will note that the person is “tinok she’nishbeh.”

    However, far fewer people will say that if the person steals, or commits some other anti-social behavior. If a secular Jew excels in midos or generosity, this is often noted by frum people, and there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of confusion about how this can be when they aren’t keeping the chukkim.

    There is a great story I once heard that illustrates the point. One of those Maskil vs. he haredi rabbis. Not the story about the apikoris’s shabbat dinner. That one too, but I’m talking about this one:

    A big rabbi was waiting for his train, but he didn’t have his ticket. A maskil challenged him to a debate. Over the conversation, it came out that the rabbi had no money for a ticket, even though he needed desperately to go wherever he was going. “So what are you going to do?” asked the maskil? “I will pray, Hashem will provide if it his will.”

    The rabbi began to pray, and the maskil erated the rabbi for expecting faith and prayer to answer his predicament.

    The train began to approach.

    “I can’t stand it!” Cried the maskil. And he bought the rabbi a ticket. “Here!” He cried. “I will provide for you. Enough!”

    The common explanation of this story is that the Maskil did not understand that he was the sheliach for G-d. And maybe that’s true.

    But there is another layer here implicitly. That people who aren’t believers do have morality, and seek to do the right thing. Not ben adam l’makom, perhaps, but ben adam l’chavero. And this very story that denigrates the understanding of the secularist still acknowledges the reality of morality of secular Jews outside of faith or frumkeit.

    So I would say that there is, at the very least, ambivalence about whether a secular person is considered good or not good.

    Perhaps this is because, on some level, when it comes to chukkim, we are not able to understand them with the same understanding of good and evil like we can with mishputim, but rather, only in terms of being, well, Commanded.

  15. Aryeh,

    I understand your point of view, but unless they actually did purposeful evil I would be careful about deciding that their names (and therefore their memory, in a way) should come to an end. What about those who staggered out of the camps and had some understandable shaken faith? Do we write them off as well? Also I don’t necessarily agree with your statement “The point is that if a Jew doesn’t keep shabbos, not much else matters” I think many mitzvahs can stand on their own and do count. Hopefully those doing many other Mitzvah’s will come back to Shabbos eventually. Maybe you were somewhat inspired by your parents and grandparents to do the beautiful teshuva that you did.

  16. Aryeh,

    I am familiar with that Rashi but we still have the Bnai Yishmael and the name carries that connotation. I don’t know anybody who bears that name nowadays.

    DK,

    Though I agree with your point that “I simply cannot imagine thinking about my own grandparents in such contemptuous terms” I can’t see your point about the Noachide laws. Non-Jews are not required to keep taryag mitzvos and so their failure to do so has no correlation to a Jew who fails to do so.

  17. Yes. I have met many non-observant Jews who say that they are “good people,” and so feel secure in their lifestyles. But such goodness is on a relative and subjective scale. When I meet people who tell me this, part of me wants to tell them that as Jews our “goodness” is regulated by something other than ourselves, and that there is a heck of a lot more to it that just being “good.”

    But how do you explain this to a Jewish person who has intermarried, but feels that because she is a “good person” her lifestyle is okay?

  18. Unfortunately, I see so many people who keep Shabbos but who cheat and are dishonest in business that it sours me.

  19. David–first, they had plenty of good qualities. Good qualities makes one a “good person”. Good qualities do not make one a good Jew. The most common mitzvah I hear ba’alei teshuvah talk about their frei grandparents performing is tzedakah, which is why I mentioned it. Yes, I know certain aspects of derech eretz which make for being a “good person” also count as mitzvos, but I picked the one I hear most often. The point is that if a Jew doesn’t keep shabbos, not much else matters. Also, if a Jew does a mitzvah without kavannah, it’s questionable if that mitzvah event counts as a mitzvah. Point is—all of our grandparents were nice people with many sterling qualities, but they were not good Jews, so I feel it’s inappropriate to name after them. I’m not saying it’s usser–just that I would hate to use them as an example to my child of how a Jew should live.

    Regarding Rebbi Yishmael, we have a mesorah that Yishmael did teshuvah, so it would be fine to name after him. Read Rashi on Bereshis 25:9. It says Avraham lived to a “good old age”, and in the next posuk, says Yitzchak and Yishmael buried him. Rashi says that Yitzchak is mentioned first because Yishmael did teshuvah and let Yitzchak walk ahead, despite Yishmael being older. This is why Avraham lived to a “good old age”.

  20. Let me try to challenge this from a Jewish perspective. There is an argument to say the Torah itself appears to recognize someone can be a good person without being a religious Jew. That is those people who follow the Noahide Laws.

    “In some cultures, you can blow yourself up – killing tens of people in the process – and be acclaimed as a ‘good person’.”

    Um…that culture you are speaking of isn’t exactly known for its easy, breezy, moral relativism, now is it? Is Fundamentalist Islam where you really want to set the bar? If so, Mazel Tov! You win against Fundamentalist Islam! So does most of the western world, though.

    Aryeh wrote,

    ““We named him after his grandfather. While he was not frum, he also wasn’t an ax-murderer. In his merit, may our son Shimon Reuven also never be an ax-murderer. Amen, selah!””

    Probably I had very different grandparents than you, Aryeh, but I simply cannot imagine thinking about my own grandparents in such contemptuous terms.

    “But I know that if I answer back, go on the offensive, or don’t make every effort to judge them favourably, I won’t be acting like a good jew; but I probably would be acting like a good person.”

    WADRE, you don’t really seem to be judging them all that favorably.

  21. Aryeh –

    Putting aside the question of naming after non-frum grandparents, were the only good qualities of your grandparents their ability to write checks?

    Looking to the question of naming children after non-frum individuals, how did we ever get a Tanna named Rabi Yishmael?

  22. Albany Jew–I understand that this is a sensitive topic, and I don’t want to offend those that might have named after frei grandparents. Many people do. I’m just sharing why I feel it is wrong and have not done it. I’m not trying to pass judgement on why our grandparents desecrated Shabbos, ate chazzur, etc, but naming a child is giving them something to which they can aspire. I’m not saying they are horrible people for breaking shabbos for parnassah, but they are horrible Jews for it. When most people say, “They did some mitzvos”, they are mostly referring to giving tzedakah from the money they earned by desecrating Shabbos. Tzedakah is great, but Shabbos is what defines a Jew. For those who break it, their mere touch spoils wine, their testimony is suspect, and all other mitzvos unrelated to shabbos eventually fall by the wayside. If they really just broke shabbos for parnassah, why did they stop keeping kosher, mikvah, etc? I’m not saying that I would necessarily be any stronger. But I also wouldn’t be so proud as to think that my descendents should be named after me due to the strength of my check-writing ability. My grandparents were nice people. They were millionaires and gave hundreds of thousands to tzedakah, even to some well-known yeshivos. But they were also the first in 3000 years to break Shabbos, and but for chasdei Hashem, my children would be goyim due to their actions. We all do good and bad, and I’m not saying you can only name after a tzaddik. A lot of frum people name after other frum family members who could have been am ha’ratzim, but they were Shomer Shabbos. A Jew who flagrantly violates Shabbos has few other merits as a Jew that I would care for my child to emulate, no matter what the circumstance happens to be.

  23. Wow, this was a compelling post- I have to say that I also run into this all the time and I have a hard time answering the criticism of why I want to be more observant than I used to be: realizing that it isn’t enough to be just good but to be continually mindful is quite a change of conciousness.

  24. I don’t know Aryeh, as you can see above, I am a proponent of the “Good Torah Jew” rather than the “good person” argument but I also would never judge what my grandparents did or didn’t do (e.g., work on Shabbos to keep their job) because I never walked in their shoes. And I quite literally owe my lives to them. I think we can comfortably name our children for their grandparents while: having in mind the mitzvahs that they did do (may my child give as generously as his grandparent!) and we can also keep in mind a Szaddik of the same name.

  25. Kressel, Love your blog, I just discovered it. Re – good person. I heard a rabbi put it this way. You ask the average person on the street, are you going to heaven? They’ll say, well, i didn’t murder anybody or steal from a bank, guess I’m going. Ask a tzaddik, are you making it into heaven, and he/she’ll stop and think, well, i messed up here, and i could’ve done a lot better over there. gosh, i really don’t know. seems the average person has a crude idea of goodness, and the more refined your concept, the more you realize how all-encompassing and difficult goodness is to attain. judaism’s concept of goodness is very refined, and only someone who’s been working on him/herself can properly appreciate that. btw, kressel, i’m trying to reach you about a tele-conference workshop but can’t get through to your e-mail. could you e-mail me? Thanks.

  26. My wife and I discussed this exact issue with regards to naming our kids. I have seen Baalai Teshuvah name their kids after non-frum grandparents, etc, and make a speech saying something like, “He may not have been frum, but he was a good person.” I’m not trying to speak ill of those who choose to name after non-frum relatives–I know a lot of emotion goes into these decisions. But as a BT, I hope my kids will be more than “good people”, I want them to be good Jews following Torah. I couldn’t, in good conscience, name them after the first generation to openly descrate shabbos, and those who started the destruction of the family tree. Even for those relatives who weren’t raised frum (tinock shenishba), but never found Torah, should we name after them because they were “good people”? Can’t almost all people who aren’t serial killers say, “I may have some faults, but I’m a good person!” My wife and I joke that the speech at the bris should be something like, “We named him after his grandfather. While he was not frum, he also wasn’t an ax-murderer. In his merit, may our son Shimon Reuven also never be an ax-murderer. Amen, selah!”

  27. I’mJewish–
    Most of the self-proclaimed “good people” I know don’t come close to fulfilling the mitzva of honoring their parents properly. I don’t know many 20-somethings who would consider themselves “bad” for yelling at their parents, rolling their eyes during a fight, etc. Everyone does it, after all.

    You give one example of a time when we might have to upset our parents, while ignoring the extreme disrespect for parents found in almost all non-religious streams of society.

    The problem with wanting to do something as opposed to being required is that it only goes so far. I’ve known people who genuinely want to give to the poor, tutor kids, etc, but 1) they make up maybe 1% of the population. The rest are too busy, and 2) they still don’t reach the levels of kindness that those who believe in divine command have reached. When I think of the amazingly kind people I’ve met in life, people who seem almost beyond human, all have been religious. Not necessarily Jewish, but they all believed in a loving God who wants his creations to love as well.

  28. Ah, interesting yet probably controversial post (although I don’t see any comments yet) Another thing that is important to realize is that the definition of a “good person” changes with time, whereas “a good jew” stays constant in Torah. This certainly was an impetus for us to become observant. What others see as “unwilling to change with the times” we see as a bedrock foundation of how to live our lives rather than the “morality of the moment”.

  29. A lot of “good” people and communities are running on the fumes of prior religious practice. Eventually the fumes dissipate and the “good” practices fade away, unless there is reinforcement by a fresh religious commitment.

  30. >>A good jew is required to treat their parents with the utmost respect – to stand up for them, to take care of them, to speak politely to them at all times, even in the midst of a heated disagreement or argument.

    A good person is not.>>

    Sure they are.

    I think where the cognitive dissonance comes in is in stories like the following: I read an article recently about the phenomenon of increased observance among religions of all stripes (including BT’s). And an elderly couple whose daughter had become a BT was very hurt because the daughter declined participating in a planned family vacation because the accommodations would not be kosher enough to her liking. I am sure that the parents were extremely disappointed and hurt.
    It is very, very hard for a loving, good, and caring secular person to see such an action as what a “good person” or “good Jew” does, because they value other people’s feelings above what they perceive as interesting-but-irrelevant cultural customs. I struggle with this dilemma myself because I can empathize with both sides.

    The other piece of this equation is that if you only do something because you believe it is required — as opposed to actually wanting to do it — is that the mark of a good person? Shouldn’t I want to be charitable, as opposed to feeling that I have no choice but to be charitable?

    Great, provocative post.

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