Posted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
Tiger Woods’ statement was a model of repentance and contrition. He admitted he had a problem. He said that words alone would not solve it, that he requires, and is receiving counseling. He admitted that celebrity and money had given him a sense of entitlement and had corrupted him. He said he had behaved selfishly and irresponsibly. He accepted that being a public figure meant private responsibility and that he had to model good behavior for the youth. And he looked the entire time like he meant it. It was that rarest of things, a sincere and unconditional statement of contrition and responsibility from a public figure for cheating on his wife. And more than just talking about changing, he told us what he is doing in order to be a better man.
Compare it to the nauseating drivel of a guy like Mark Sanford, the misguided Governor of South Carolina, who told the media, after he was caught cheating, that his mistress was his soulmate, or to President Clinton, who never admitted that his womanizing was a deep-seated problem that required counseling, and you can begin to appreciate how difficult it was for Tiger Woods to confess that his own philandering stemmed from a problem of his soul.
Noone wants to admit needing help. We don’t want to confess to that level of dependency. If a man cheats on his wife, he usually sees it as an aberration, something he shouldn’t have done and something he’ll work on not repeating. But it’s not a manifestation of an inner brokenness. He doesn’t need any counseling. He just needs to recommit to an ethical life.
In truth, men don’t cheat because they’re liars and thieves. The vast majority of men who are unfaithful would never shoplift or steal a car. Rather, men cheat because, as Tiger Woods accepted, they have a problem. They are broken on the inside – they feel insecure and unimportant – and think that having women desire them will compensate. It’s the age-old lie that conquest, especially of a sexual nature, will bring personal validation. As Woods said, after all the money and fame he had earned he thought that normal rules didn’t apply to him. He was Caesar, which is another way of saying that even after all the fame and money he still was insatiable for more. All the accolades, all the fans, the beautiful wife, the adorable kids, still could not make him feel full. All the money still didn’t make him feel rich. He remained a black hole of endless consumption.
But this man is on the way to real amends, I believe, because he recognizes he has a problem. The Talmud says there are three essential steps to repentance. The first is to admit you have a problem. The second is to confess it verbally and take full responsibility. And the third is to undertake corrective, righteous action that will undo or make better the error.
By that count it’s time for America to admit it has a problem, because there is a little Tiger in all of us, a insatiable thirst that has gripped the American soul and that cannot be quenched, whatever the level of consumption.
I just published a book called “The Blessing of Enough.” It’s the one blessing America doesn’t have. Even after we collapsed our economy through rampant greed we still refuse to admit we had a collective problem. We still cannot not accept that it’s not normal to be the richest country in the world and still feel like we never, ever have enough.
Our Wall Street bankers earn millions. And even after they receive the most putrid press, exposing their avarice and insatiable lust for more and more cash, all funded by tax-payer dollars, they still can’t stop paying themselves billions more in bonuses. This is a sickness that the patient refuses to acknowledge.
The feeling that enough is never enough, the curse of insatiability, was something I tried to impress upon Michael Jackson. I saw him punishing himself constantly. When I asked him if he was proud of Thriller, which had sold approximately 50 millions albums, he told me, Yes, but not really, because he had a post-it note on his mirror in the bathroom that said 100 million. So that was the man whom Michael saw in the mirror, never enough, always having to succeed more.
I believe that if Michael had realized the corrosive effect that fame and money were having on his life – how it had isolated him from friends and family, how it had given him too a sense of entitlement to cross healthy boundaries, and how it had enhanced his fear of becoming obscure and forgotten, a pain he turned to prescription drug medication to numb – he would be alive today. And the fact that Tiger Woods is honest enough to admit that fame and money can be incredibly corrosive means his marriage and his character have a fighting chance of healing, surviving, and flourishing.
Money and fame can be real blessings. With the former you can cure poverty, with the latter you can highlight noble causes. Instead, they are curses in America today. For all our money, we are the most unhappy nation in the world, consuming three quarters of the earth’s anti-depressants. And for all our celebrity’s fame, they can’t seem to stay married or keep themselves out of rehab.
America, we have a problem. It’s time for a confession of our own.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s newest book, The Blessing of Enough, has just been published. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley. www.shmuley.com
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February 16, 2010 | 11:26 am
Posted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
Last week I was honored to speak to the Jewish community of Venice at the Chabad House, which hosts thousands for Shabbos meals, and to the extremely warm and welcoming main community. Having just returned from Haiti, I addressed the issue of why a good G-d allows the innocent to suffer. I was amazed when an observant Jew approached me to say that the people of Haiti were not innocent, immersed as they are in idol-worship. ‘Surely you don’t mean to say that the morgue filled with the babies that I witnessed, the stench so bad that I was gagging, deserved to die? Or that the discarded bodies I saw being eaten by dogs deserved their fate?’ His response: The people of Haiti as a whole were punished. A similar sentiment had earlier been voiced by the Rev. Pat Robertson on The 700 Club.
I have always been puzzled as to why many religious people enjoy portraying G-d as executioner-in-chief and are always finding reasons to justify human suffering.
The holocaust produced two camps of Jews. Many decided that the Jews had been punished for intermarriage and wanting to be secular. But others had a much more Jewish response. They rejected any theological justification or self-blame and set to work even harder toward the creation of a Jewish state where Jews would find refuge and build an army to prevent another genocide. The appropriate response to death is always life. And the Jewish response to suffering is to demand that G-d put an end to it.
So many people search for a reason why people suffer. They want to redeem tragedy by giving it meaning. Suffering ennobles the spirit, they say. It makes you more mature. It helps you focus on what’s important in life.
I would argue that suffering has no purpose, no redeeming qualities, and any attempts to infuse it with rich significance are deeply misguided.
Of course suffering can lead ultimately to a positive outcome. The rich man who had contempt for the poor and suddenly loses his money can become more empathetic when he himself struggles. The arrogant executive who treats her subordinates like dirt can soften when she is told that she G-d forbid has breast cancer. But does it have to come about this way? Is suffering the only way to learn goodness?
Jewish values maintain that there is no good that comes from suffering that could not have come through a more blessed means. Some people win the lottery and are so humbled that they dedicate a huge portion to charity. A rock star like Bono becomes rich and famous and consecrates his celebrity to the relief of poverty. Yes, the holocaust led directly to the creation of the State of Israel. But there are plenty of nations who came into existence without being preceded by gas chambers.
Here is another way that Jewish values are so strongly distinguished from other values systems. Many religions believes that suffering is redemptive. In Christianity, the suffering servant, the crucified Christ, brings atonement for the sins of mankind through his own torment. The message: No suffering, no redemption. Someone has to die so that the sins of mankind are erased. Suffering is therefore extolled in the New Testament: “And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” (Romans) Again, “If we are being afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation; if we are being consoled, it is for your consolation, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we are also suffering.” (Corinthians) Indeed, Paul even made suffering an obligation, encouraging the fledging Christians to “share in suffering like a good soldier of Christ Jesus.”
But Judaism, in prophesying a perfect Messianic future where there is no death or pain ultimately rejects the suffering-is-redemptive narrative. Suffering isn’t a blessing, it’s a curse. Jews are obligated to alleviate all human misery. Suffering leaves you bitter rather than blessed, scarred rather than humble. Few endure suffering without serious and lasting trauma. Suffering leads to a tortured spirit and a pessimistic outlook. It scars our psyches and creates a cynical consciousness, devoid and bereft of hope. Suffering causes us to dig out the insincerity in the hearts of our fellows and to be envious of other people’s happiness. If individuals do become better people as a result of their suffering, it is despite the fact that they suffered, not because of it. Ennoblement of character comes through triumph over suffering rather than its endurance.
Speak to a Holocaust survivor like Elie Wiesel and ask them what they gathered from their suffering, aside from loneliness, heartbreak, and outrage. To be sure, they also learned the value of life and the sublime quality of human companionship. Wiesel is an incredibly profound man. But these lessons, this depth, could easily have been learned through life-affirming experiences that do not leave all of one’s relatives as ash.
I believe that my parents’ divorce drove me to a deeper understanding of life and a greater embrace of religion. Yet, I know people who have led completely privileged lives and have far deeper philosophies of life and are even more devoted to their religion than me. And they have the advantage of not being bitter, cynical, or pessimistic the way I can sometimes be because of the pain of my early childhood.
When I served for eleven years as Rabbi at Oxford University I noticed that the college students I knew who were raised in homes in which their parents gave them huge amounts of love and attention were the most healthy and balanced of all. They were usually also the best students. Those who were demeaned by their parents could also be positive and loving, but a Herculean effort was first needed to undo the scarring inflicted upon them by parental neglect. Whatever good we as individuals, or the world in general, receives from suffering can be brought about in a painless, joyful manner. And it behooves people of faith especially to once-and-for-all cease justifying the death of innocents and instead rush to comfort and aid the survivors.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s new book on Jewish values, Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life, will be published in April by Basic Books. His trip to Haiti can be viewed at www.shmuley.com.