An innocence lost – reflections on Shelach
I used to look up to politicians until Dennis Hastert, Anthony Weiner, Mark Sanford, and Bill Clinton taught me the errors of my ways. I used to look up to sports stars until Aaron Hernandez, O.J. Simpson, Mike Tyson, Alex Rodriguez, and Michael Vick taught me the error of my ways. I used to look up to religious leaders of other faiths until allegations against the Catholic Church in countries around the world taught me the errors of my way. I used to look up to rabbis until Barry Freundel, Baruch Lanner, Yehoshua Pinto, Leib Tropper and various ex-Chief Rabbis of Israel taught me the errors of my way.
What happened? Is there someone I can blame? Am I just overreacting to media sensationalism? Perhaps it’s only me, but I am beginning to feel as if every day is a full moon. The “Leave it to Beaver” setting of my youth seems to have been replaced with an Alfred Hitchcock drama. Each morning I awake full of apprehension and fear, expecting to be shocked by the news emerging before my eyes. It may be the face of a prim and proper politician being arrested for acts of indiscretion and financial irregularities. It may be the cover of a magazine featuring an Olympic gold medalist who was born male, yet in later life decided to embrace her femininity. It may be rabbis who act in manners that make me very uncomfortable, and often leave me squirming in shame that perhaps I am in some way guilty by association. It may be police victimizing innocent civilians or conversely the police being the victims. It maybe the horrific acts of murder and terror perpetrated by Isis, or the biased venomous diatribes heard in the halls of the UN. It may be the corrupt official in FIFA or the socialist regime in Greece abandoning their financial commitment. The unrelenting frequency of these shocking stories and events are spiraling out of control and seem unparalleled in history. It feels as though we are falling into a confusing abyss.
Yet all may not be lost. The words of this week’s Torah portion may allow for an interesting understanding of today’s events. “And Moses sent out spies; all of them men who were heads of the children of Israel.” (Numbers 13.3) The noted commentator Rashi explains that the terminology men denotes men of character and upstanding citizens. Yet a few verses later, upon the reporting of the spies, the Torah writes, “And they went and came … and brought back word about the land.” Yes, this time Rashi comments on the duality of verbs by stating that just as their return was with evil intent, so was their departure.
So which opinion is true? Were they men of character or were their intentions evil from inception? In all probability both may be factual. People known for remarkable character may also behave in manners that are very unremarkable. Conversely, unexceptional people may, on occasion, behave in manners that are truly exceptional. And then there are those people that are genuinely evil and seek out careers that grant them easier access to manipulate and abuse those who place their trust and faith in them.
However, I would like to assume that our leaders of yesteryear were inherently good people. That said, I would be naïve to ignore the reality that good people are tempted to do the unconscionable. I’m not excusing their behaviors, I am only trying to comprehend them. In the final chapter of the Shema it states: ur’item otam uzechartem et kol mitzvot – and you shall see (the tzizit) and remember all the mitzvot of the Torah. It continues by stating: v’lo taturu acharei eineichem – you are not to be swayed by the vision of your eye. The words seem contradictory. What do I do? Should I use my eyes to see the tzizit and be reminded of the mitzvot, or should I not be swayed by the visions of my eyes?
The answer undoubtedly is that we should do both. We should be able to use our eyes to see the good, while training our eyes not to be swayed or tempted by that which is less desirable. We should be able to look at those in leadership positions and realize the positive aspects of their ascension to greatness. Conversely, we must never deify or place anyone on a pedestal that’s too high to fail. However, there are also a select few whose behaviors are so reprehensible that there can be no compassion, forgiveness, or acceptance.
Why do some leaders turn bad? The answer may be less important than the acknowledgement and realization of its ongoing occurrence. Yes, I have been horrified by the recurring nightmare of predatory sexual attitudes. The naive admiration of my youth has been destroyed by those guilty of the most heinous of crimes. The repetitive nature of predatory abusive behaviors casts an aspersion upon all clergy, politicians, and other leaders, and sadly overshadows much of their positive accomplishments. It is time to follow the dictates of the Torah and publicly admonish the perpetuators of evil. The only crime worse than those of the abusers is the crime of those who were able to put a stop to it but instead kept silent.
Yet perhaps I must also recognize that in spite of the barrage of horrific news, there is still so much good and positive in the world we live in. Thus, next time you don a tallit, look at the tzizit by holding the fringes all together in your hand. Contemplate that it represents all that is positive in the world, and by taking hold and embracing the good we can and will overpower the evil.
Rabbi Jack Engel