April 10, 2013
Looking inward, forward
“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 two weeks. As a result of these transgressions or failures, we have lost trust in a longtime community vendor whose products used to grace our Shabbat tables. And some 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 not sufficiently 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 morally to what has happened, so that this does 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. 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. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the chazzan describes the fear and trembling he feels as he assumes the role of public servant. “Do not hold them accountable for my sins; do not condemn them for my transgressions,” he says. He realizes that he is a “klei kodesh,” 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.
As connected and involved Jews, we each make myriad 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 a baker, as a school administrator or a butcher, as a chazzan or as a board member — possesses the awesome consciousness that he or she is a “klei kodesh,” and functions 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-1970s, 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-’80s, 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. So he closed the service center, and at age 50-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.
Yosef Kanefsky is senior rabbi at B’nai David-Judea (bnaidavid.com), a Modern Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.