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Embarrassing Actions

Embarrassing Actions

Whatever a Jew does reflects the entire Jewish people.


Your child damages a neighbor's property, you are responsible.

But that can mean two distinct things. Either, simply, that as the child's parent you are where the buck stops.

Or it may mean something deeper. If the boy didn't just accidentally hit a ball through the Jones' picture window but rather aimed a rock at it -- and had been influenced in his disregard for the property of others by some remarks you made -- you are responsible in much more than the buck-stopping sense.

The Jewish concept of "arvut," -- the "interdependence" of all Jews -- is sometimes understood as akin to the first, simple, sense of responsibility. Jews are to regard other Jews as family, and therefore to feel responsible for one another.

But, the celebrated Jewish thinker Rabbi E.E. Dessler teaches, Jews are responsible for one another in the word's deeper sense too. When a Jew does something good, it reflects the entire Jewish people's goodness. And the converse is no less true. Thus, when Achan, one man, misappropriated spoils after the first battle of Joshua's conquest of Canaan, the siege of Jericho, it is described as the sin of the entire people (Joshua, 7:1). Explains Rabbi Dessler: Had the people as a whole been sufficiently sensitive to the Divine commandment to shun the city's spoils, Achan would never have been able to commit his sin.

The much publicized arrests last month of several Jews, amid a larger group, on a variety of financial charges caused all sensitive Jews acute embarrassment. But the vivid image of Jews -- religious ones, no less -- being carted off by federal agents needs to do something more than embarrass us. It needs to spur us.

Not because we have any right to assume the worst about the accused; we don't. And if in fact there were violations of the law, we don't know the circumstances, the motivations of the accused or even if they were aware of the pertinent laws (which might not make a difference to a trial judge but should to the rest of us). Trial by Tabloid is not Jewish jurisprudence.

But the images themselves must make us think. In particular about other, confirmed, cases of Jews -- including religiously observant ones -- who have in fact engaged in "white collar" crime. Not to mention several identifiably Jewish, if not particularly religious, Jews who have even achieved broad notoriety for their societal sins.

And so, the deeper concept of arvut leaves us to ponder the possibility that some less blatant and less outrageous -- but still sinful -- actions of other Jews, ourselves perhaps included, may have, little by little, provided a matrix on which greater sins subsequently came to grow.

Every child who received a Jewish education knows that even a small coin placed in a pushke, or charity box, is the fulfillment of a mitzvah, the commandment to give charity. It should be equally apparent, especially to all us grown-up children, that the misappropriation of even a similarly small amount of money is a sin.

And so Jews, whoever and wherever they are, who cut corners for financial gain -- who underreport their income or avoid taxes illegally or are less than fully honest in their business dealings -- contribute thereby to the thievery-matrix. And they bear responsibility, in however small the ways, for larger crimes committed by their fellows.

What is more, even those of us who are innocent of any financial indiscretions might also be unwitting contributors to the critical criminal mass. Because things other than money can also be "stolen."

The Torah speaks, for example, about two forms of oppressive practices (ona'ah): financial (as in overcharging) and personal (as in causing pain to others with words). The Talmud also calls the act of misleading another person "stealing knowledge" (g'neivat da'at); and considers it "robbery" to not return another's greeting. Halachic decisors, moreover, note the forbiddance to "steal sleep" -- to wake someone unnecessarily or to keep him up when he wants to retire.

So even those of us whose financial ledgers are in order would do well to introspect. Are we sufficiently careful not to use words in hurtful ways, entirely meticulous in advice we offer, fully responsive to the good will of others, truly cautious about not disturbing their peace? If not, then we are -- in a subtle but real way -- part of the perp-walk picture ourselves.

The Jewish month of Elul is here. Leading as it does to next month's High Holy Days, it is a time when the Jewishly conscious take spiritual stock of their lives. On Yom Kippur, Jews the world over will repeatedly recite two confessional prayers, "Ashamnu" and "Al Chet Shechatanu." Both, oddly, are in the first person plural. It is a collective "we" who have sinned. As the commentaries explain, that is because, among Jews, even sins of which the individual supplicant may be personally innocent, implicate us all.


August 23, 2009

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Visitor Comments: 8

(8) benjikid, August 30, 2009 4:37 PM

We Jews are entitled to a few scoundrels.

Rabbi Safran writes an interesting article. However, as bad as we feel about the "Bernie Madoff's" among us, we cant be respocible for his evil actions. Yes, we Jews invented decency, and to be law abiding, but it's quite a burden to be responcible for all Jews. I agree these 'bad" Jews help the anti-Semite say.."see those Jews are capable of eveything evil." Not easy to be "chosen". "Chosen" don't make us better, just that we have to try harder.

(7) Anonymous, August 30, 2009 3:15 AM

re: several previous comments

It seems to me that Rav Shafran was not being 'too soft' nor defending the actions of those arrested. We are commanded to assess all people in a favourable light. Those arrested have not been judged nor have their trials commenced; is the Rabbi to commit perversions of justice by even stating their possible crimes as definite occurences? Thank you for your writings, Rav Shafran.

(6) Anonymous, August 26, 2009 7:23 PM

"all are genius' when it comes to reationalizing one's own behavior"

"And so Jews, whoever and wherever they are, who cut corners for financial gain -- who underreport their income or avoid taxes illegally or are less than fully honest in their business dealings -- contribute thereby to the thievery-matrix. And they bear responsibility, in however small the ways, for larger crimes committed by their fellows." if this is true we are in big trouble. let's be honest.illegally avoid paying taxes,undereport income,less than fully honest in business dealings. to be kind let's say jews in general and observant jews in particular are at least proportionately to their % of the population well represented in this vast grouping. in violent crime jews are way underrepresented but that's not relevant just felt a need to say it . another area that is worth noting is how many identifiably observant jews take advantage of the system .was section 8 housing ,food stamps ,medicaid etc designed for those who are unable to earn a decent living or for those who choose to study and live off the taxes of the working community. if the religious jewish community is serious about effecting changes in this area it has to be taken seriously. maybe mussar classes to be taught to all including advanced level students would help. i heard the mussar institute offers classes

(5) Yitzi, August 26, 2009 2:31 PM

Very well written article. Yasher Koach

Very well written article. Yasher Koach

(4) Dr. Alex Pister, August 25, 2009 12:51 PM

Take responsibility for your actions

“the motivations of the accused or even if they were aware of the pertinent laws (which might not make a difference to a trial judge but should to the rest of us).” Rabbi Shafran, I’d argue that the law is the law regardless of the motivation for the crime. Let’s say someone stole to support a yeshiva or an orphanage. Should that lessen the crime? And to claim that there was a lack of awareness of the law is simply outrageous. We’re talking money laundering here and trafficking in body parts. But even in the world of “playing dumb” it’s no excuse. Furthermore, you seem to be trying to deflect the direct and complete responsibility for the alleged crimes committed by grown men to others and their legal transgressions. These individuals did or didn’t do what they’re accused of with their own free will and are 100% fully responsible for the consequences to the full extent of the law. It might be more appropriate for you to focus on encouraging Jews to adhere to: “dina d’malchusah dina” and “aseesah hayashar v’hatov” rather than trying to dilute the very severe charges these men face. The blatant disregard for the law in the world of communal Jewish institutions is evidenced all too many times in the buying and selling back for cash of charitable tax receipts, and other nefarious incidents such as the “misplacement” of over U.S. 300 million dollars for the northern israel campaign last year. I’ve yet been able to receive a coherent answer as to what actually happened to the money. Rather than making subtle attempts at dodging and diluting responsibility I’d rather see an upfront acceptance that the FBI probably had too much good reason (this was at least the third such crackdown in the last ten years) to let things go and turn a blind eye. That would be the beginning of an acknowledgement of the problem which ultimately is the solution.

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