Learning how to respond to sin

“For there is not a righteous man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not.” (Kohellet, 7:20)

Everyone has their moments of failure, when they transgress. Not necessarily out of malice, but in response to temptation or opportunity or out of fear. Rarely do we see such failures play out in the kind of paradoxically public and intimate way, as the way we have seen failures in our community play out over these past 2 weeks. As a result of these transgression and failures, we have lost trust in a longtime community vendor whose products used to grace our Shabbat tables.  And many feel uneasy — or worse — about our local Kashrut agency that left a gaping hole in its supervision and which, in the opinion of some, has neither apologized sufficiently for its role in what happened, nor explained what specific measures it will take to prevent this sort of breach from happening again.  We have been confused by some of the words and deeds of community rabbis, and become unsure of who and what we should believe. It has been an awful couple of weeks in our community, and for all we know, the story is still not over. But it is already the right time to think about how we will respond spiritually and mortally to what has happened, so that this not become an episode that was filled with sound and fury but ultimately signified nothing. And so that we can emerge from this story as a stronger and better community. 

I’ll suggest two appropriate and necessary responses, one that is personal to each of us, and one that is more communal in nature. There’s a Talmudic story about Rabbi Yannai who was approached by the members of his community and was asked to render a Halachik ruling concerning a privately-owned tree whose branches had grown beyond the private domain, and which were now obstructing the passage of people and goods in the public domain. Curiously, Rabbi Yannai told the parties that that he could not rule just yet, but that they should return the next day. When they reconvened on the morrow, Rabbi Yannai ruled unequivocally that the tree needed to be removed.  “Ah”, the tree’s owner quickly responded. “Do you Rabbi Yannai not yourself have a tree whose branches extend into the public domain?” “Indeed so”, the sage replied, “but go out and see. If mine is still there, then you may keep yours there. But if I have cut mine down, than you must cut yours down as well”. Rabbi Yannai’s first response to the communal controversy was to examine himself, and his own degree of sensitivity to the community’s needs. Which led him, during the intervening night, to go out and remove his own tree.

Without excusing or justifying the bad and the questionable behavior that has come to light over the past weeks, personal introspection is one of the right and proper responses to it. The integrity of our outrage at others, for their having betrayed our trust and having acted behind our backs, is measured by our willingness to engage in self-reckoning, and to recognize that we too have not yet perfected ourselves in these areas. We all make promises that we don’t fully keep, and act differently when we think that no one is looking.  Similarly, the meaningfulness of our criticism that others did too much circling of the wagons and not enough forthright admission of fault, is completely tied to our willingness to search for evidence of the same tendency within ourselves – and none of us can claim that we’ve never acted similarly.

For there is not a righteous man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not.

And there is also a way to respond on a communal level. There is a level of consciousness and commitment that all of us together need to expect and demand from everyone who serves the Jewish community in any capacity. For inspiration we can look to the “Hineni” prayer recited by the chazzan on Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur. The chazzan describes his fear and trembling as he stands before the Divine Judge. But the text makes clear that his fear and trembling is also the result of his consciousness that he is a public servant. “Do not hold them accountable for my sins; do not condemn them for my transgressions”, he says.  He realizes that he has undertaken a literally awesome responsibility in agreeing to represent the community, in assuming the role of “klei kodesh”, of a holy instrument who facilitates Israel’s encounter with God. And his greatest fear is that, even inadvertently, he might cause material or spiritual harm to the community he is serving. This level of consciousness and this degree of commitment represent the baseline that we must expect from anyone and everyone who takes it upon him or herself to serve the Jewish community.

And yes, this is an extremely rarefied expectation, and a very high baseline. But they are the very ones which explain the otherwise deeply puzzling story of God’s decision to bar Moshe from entry into the land over Moshe’s seemingly minor infraction of striking the rock. As Rambam explains, the community’s need for water in the desert was legitimate. And Moshe’s chastising them as “rebels”, and with the accumulated frustration of forty years, crashing his staff –  the symbol of his Divine appointment – upon the rock, was inappropriate, hurtful, and an abuse of his role as a communal leader, which is to say, as a communal servant. And to this day, everyone who takes on the role of klei kodesh walks in Moshe’s gigantic footsteps. 

As connected and involved Jews, we each make a myriad of Jewish-living decisions and choices daily. And the unfortunate events of the past two weeks have presented us with an invaluable opportunity to express, through our choices, the expectation that anyone who serves our community – whether as a rabbi or as a baker, as a school administrator or a butcher, as a chazzan or as a board member – possess the awesome consciousness that he or she is a “klei kodesh”, and function with the absolute commitment to, above all else, never bring material or spiritual harm to the community. Please don’t think that you can’t have an impact. Right now, more than any time I can remember in the life of this community, terms like “preserving trust”, and “the need for transparency” carry a power than no one can ignore. Collectively, we can make something good happen.

My Dad told me a story on his deathbed, a story he had never told me before. In the mid-70’s,  as a professional social worker, he was the director of a Federation storefront, charged with servicing the needs of the Soviet Jews who were coming to the Rockaways in large numbers at that time. By the mid-80’s the immigration had slowed to a trickle. An influential board member suggested that my father manipulate the numbers, to obscure the reality that the clientele had sharply decreased in size. But my Dad wouldn’t do it. Because he knew he had been entrusted with the Jewish community’s funds and resources, and now they were better placed elsewhere. And he closed the service center, and at age fifty-something, he looked for a new job. That was the first time he had told me this story. And it was the last story he ever told me.

Nobody can — or should — paper over or minimize the awful events of the past few weeks. But we can — and must — know how to respond to them.