Repentance and Responsibility

David Shasha

Posted Sep 20, 2007      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Repentance and Responsibility

by David Shasha

I fondly recall when I was a young boy reading the stories of the Wise Men of Chelm; a series of tales about the bumbling, but lovable Hasidim whose misadventures always provided some useful moral. 

The one story that continues to remain in my memory is “The Barrel of Wine.”  In this story, the Wise Men of Chelm are invited to a community soiree to which they are each asked to bring a bottle of wine that is to be poured into a barrel at the entrance to the party site.  Each of the Wise Men of Chelm, being “wise” men it is true, figure that it would not be so bad if they would bring a wine bottle filled with water – as wine bottles are dark colored and one cannot see what is inside them and, anyway, a little water would only dilute the other bottles of wine that were sure to fill the barrel.

As might be expected, everyone coming to the party has the same idea.  The punch-line to the story comes when the Rebbe makes Kiddush on the wine – and discovers when he drinks the liquid that it is not wine, but water!  He has unwittingly not fulfilled his responsibility for the Kiddush that must legally be made with wine.  And, to boot, he has made the incorrect blessing – he has made “Boreh Peri ha-Gefen” when he should have made “She-ha-Kol Nihyah bi-Dbaro”; the latter being the generic blessing for water.

I thought of this story when I was told that a prominent philanthropist and wealthy communal leader who regularly gives speeches in our Synagogues to raise money for worthy charitable causes, was causing great anxiety among individuals that he owed money to in his retail business.  Here was yet another emblematic case where appearances were truly deceiving: a well-respected man, thought of as a righteous person, appeared to be good, yet in reality – in places that we cannot often get access to – he was acting in an immoral manner.

The Jewish laws of repentance are split into two segments: repentance for any violation of the ritual laws, those matters between Man and God, is provided for on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  The repentance that is detailed in Maimonides’ code is broken down into three requirements:

Recognition of the Sin
Regret for committing the Sin
Promising never to commit the Sin again

Again, it must be remembered that this repentance is only for matters of ritual and not for infractions of the moral law between human beings.

Any offenses that are caused between individuals must be dealt with individually between the parties themselves.

Looking back at the Wise Men of Chelm and the man who was not paying his creditors in the community, we see a common thread linking the two situations: there was a personal responsibility that was required in each case that could not be dealt with as we would deal with a ritual matter.  A ritual violation, say Sabbath desecration or eating non-Kosher food, is something that happens and can be repented of by specific actions.  Violating the sanctity of the interpersonal human relationship requires something more; something that requires that we dig deeply into our inner beings to restore what has been violated.

Responsibility means that we take seriously our role as human beings in a world that is beyond our own subjectivity and personal pleasure – it means that we must take into account the rights and needs of others. 

For the Wise Men of Chelm, their responsibility was to ensure that those coming to celebrate at the party would have wine to drink.  When they violated their responsibility, those who were expecting wine were cheated from what was required in a ritual context. 

In the more weighty case of a man who has received but not paid for merchandise from his suppliers who require payment in order to maintain their livelihoods, we can see the dangers inherent in a world where people do not take their responsibilities to heart.

What is most distressing about stories of immorality and religious hypocrisy is the idea that a status quo might be perpetuated that would create a world of illusions to cover the world of Sin and immorality.

In this regard we would do well to recall the classic Frank Capra film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” where a young man, Jefferson Smith, is picked to replace a recently deceased senator.  Smith is chosen for his naivety rather than his experience.  Although the venal political machine that controls the state is somewhat cynical about the choice, its members are determined to keep their corrupt status quo and maintain the proper outward appearances.

In the course of the film, Smith discovers the corruption of the political machine and decides to fight it with everything he’s got.  This decision will prove to be fatal to him as it wakes the slumbering beast and brings the machine to rise up with all its power to crush him.

The way that the machine does this is to deploy the immoral mechanisms of the status quo that they have created which is built on lies and half-truths.  The machine, naturally, controls the state’s newspapers and radio stations and can whip up public opinion in a hare’s-breath.  Smith is left all alone as he knows the truth that others do not know and is wedded implacably to his responsibility as a human being to the community of citizens in which he lives.

Smith rises in spite of his complete isolation up in the face of all odds and spits in the face of the enemy.

And since this is a Hollywood movie, Smith naturally emerges victorious after the machine cracks in the face of his just onslaught.  But in real life, the moral imperative is often on the losing end.  Telling the truth is considered to be of dubious logical value in the times we live in.

Recently, we presented a groundbreaking lecture on the subject of the great sage Hakham Matloub Abadi; a man who, like Jefferson Smith, stood up to the bullies and the powerful to articulate his vision of Judaism and human morality.  In the lecture by our dear friend Zvi Zohar we heard for the first time anywhere in the Brooklyn Sephardic community the actual words of Hakham Matloub expressing the true genius of his vision. 

During the lecture I was thinking how pathetic it was that many years after the death of this holy man we were finally coming to honor him in the Magen David Synagogue in which he prayed for so long.  The enormity of the evening was forcefully brought home to me when I saw the facial expression of one of our last great community giants, Mickey Kairey, as it showed me that the actual teachings of Hakham Matloub from his writings were never presented in the community before.

Such a thing should defy credulity.

How is it possible that the greatest rabbinical mind in a wealthy community that prides itself on being religious is an unknown quantity?

And here we go back to the theme of Repentance and Responsibility. 

When we live in a world of expediency rather than one of responsibility, based on lies rather than the truth, it is no wonder that the noble and righteous vision of a saint like Hakham Matloub Abadi has been disregarded.  His wise and just words did not fit into a world that defies his ethical pronouncements.  This new world was the world of a bunch of people who were supposed to bring wine to the barrel, but who brought water. 

It is water rather than wine that we have been drinking lo these many years.

Going back to the story of Jefferson Smith, we might see that those who try to stand up and defy the authorities and those in power are simply smashed in a naked show of strength and arrogance. 

One of the primary results of the failure of Hakham Matloub’s project was the installation of a religious hypocrisy that has led to a malignant spirit of immorality in the community.  Those who sin find themselves in a much more advantageous position if they know, like Senator Payne in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” how to properly work the system.  A little money in the right places can go a long way when one looks to perpetuate a lie.

In this sense, the recalibration of reality becomes an imperative for those whose evil deeds must be transformed into something acceptable.  As in the case of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” the status quo has been perverted by cheating and lying which is meant to preserve its perquisites and material gains.  Those who choose to defy the status quo are the only ones who know the actual truth but who are forced to suffer under the cruel perversion that has now sadly become reality.

Repentance is tied to responsibility in the sense that morality tells us that we cannot give charity from stolen money; we cannot seek Synagogue honors on the Holy Days only to watch as others languish without dignity; and, most seriously, those who teach the holy Torah and who officiate as rabbis in our communities must not lie and cheat.  We are forbidden to use religion as a means to cover misdeeds and falsely pretend that we are righteous.  Our loyalty, as the Sages have stated throughout the ages, must be to the values of ‘Anava, humility, and Yir’at Shamayim, the fear of God.

Repentance means that we cannot sit idly by when we witness the suffering of others.  Charity is a tool to repair the lost dignity of the poor and not a means of social re-engineering.  Charity is to be given anonymously and must be accompanied by a restoration of dignity.  As the cliché goes, better to give a man a fishing rod and teach him to fish, rather than just giving him a fish to eat. 

It has become more and more apparent that the perpetuation of a corrupt status quo has fed into our religious values and turned them inside out.  The few of us who continue to fight the corruption are beaten back in ways that are truly beyond human comprehension.  As is the case of Jefferson Smith, it is much easier to “play ball” than it is to fight for what Smith calls a “lost cause.”

But in the vision of Hakham Matloub Abadi the truth was not seen as a “lost cause.” 

The noble traditions of the Sephardim, barely to be found today, were sacred to Hakham Matloub and his loyal followers.  But those traditions and the moral values that were embedded within them were lost as an old leadership morphed into a new one.  The new leadership set the vile tone that continues to animate a world where it is not justice that is central, but the expediency of maintaining a venal status quo which props up the corrupt and the vain.

As we enter the period of the Jewish High Holy Days, the moral vision of Hakham Matloub Abadi is one that must be restored whatever the cost.  As in the case of Cordelia in Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” it should make no difference how those who hold to the truth are seen by the status quo or how they are demonized and slandered by others.  Cordelia, like Jefferson Smith, determined that responsibility overrides expediency and is forced to suffer for her morality.  Banished for her honesty and commitment to responsibility by the father she loves, she is forced to watch the destruction of her world even as she knows that if only the others would listen to her that things would be made right.

So too is the case for those who hold the keys to the truth in a world that has been flipped and turned upside-down by those who deny the truth as they deny the goodness that has been taught to us by God’s Word.

At this sacred time we are duty-bound to understand our responsibilities and the need to restore justice and morality to a world that now values Sin over Good.  We cannot simply sit idly by and watch the righteous suffer in order to make ourselves safe from the violent depredations of those who choose Sin. 

As Hakham Matloub understood so well, God watches and God knows what human beings do.  It is this Divine vision that the model of Repentance so powerfully articulates.  It is the centrality of our Responsibility that provides humanity with dignity and true well-being.

At this sacred time we should all take heed of what this means and what we need to do in order to restore morality in a world that all too often rejects what is noble and good.