Friday, March 18, 2011

Guilt, Pride, Rats and thoughts for my friend the next premier of NSW

While the state of NSW prepares for an election where the next premier will be certainly be an Irish Catholic[i] "friend" of mine, Jews continue to read about sacrifices in the yearly Torah reading cycle. Among the varied purposes of sacrifices, one is to make sinners more aware of the seriousness of their sin, particularly accidental sins[ii]. In a society that sees guilt as a very bad thing, this post seeks to explore what guidance Torah offers on this issue for all of us and particularly political leaders.

The case against wallowing in guilt can be based on it's consequences. If people sees themselves as wicked they will either feel depressed and be prevented from serving God with joy, or if they remain cheerful in spite despite their perceived wickedness they will come to callousness[iii]. While some would think that religion wants people to be miserable, Hasidim say that feeling depressed is not a sin, but it can be more damaging than any sin. R. Shneur Zalman likens the spiritual struggle of life to a wrestling match. If one of the fighters is sluggish and miserable, he will easily be overpowered by his opponent. He argues that one must seek ideas to rid oneself of sadness relating to shortcomings in spiritual matters, except in certain set times[iv].  

On the other side of this argument, we learn that regret about past misdeeds is critical to addressing   them and personal redemption. One difference between a completely wicked person and a “Wicked person with some good[v]” is that (some of)  “the wicked are filled with regrets”. King David speaks movingly about his regret about the incident with Bat-Sheba when he says “my sin is always before me[vi]”.

Two of the types of sacrifices offered in the temple related to sin, the Chatat and Asham. The Zohar talks about the verse “the sacrifices of God, are the broken spirit[vii]”.  “I heard from the holy luminary, that when a person comes to be defiled in his sins he brings the spirit of impurity upon himself…when the temple stood, a person brought a sacrifice and his atonement was left hanging until he becomes regretful and breaks the spirit from the spirit of impurity. If the spirit of impurity is not broken the sacrifice is nothing and it is given away to the dogs[viii]”.

It can be argued that personal failings might be an asset to a leader, perhaps helping her/him understand the challenges of the people they seek to lead[ix]. The Talmud seems to be suggesting just that when it asks “Why did the Kingdom of the house of Saul the son of Kish, not continue? Because he had no “taint” or reproach[x]”. This is contrasted with David who had some type of skeleton in his closet. The Talmud asserts that we do not appoint an administrator of the community  unless he has a box of rodents hanging on his back[xi]”.This is so that if he became arrogant he can be told to turn around.

The theme of humility seems to compete with messages of Kings or leaders asserting themselves.  We have the commandment that a King must write a Torah scroll for himself so that his heart is not elevated above his brothers. On the other hand, we are taught “every scholar who does not take revenge and holds grudges like a snake is not a scholar”[xii]. This surprising teaching is challenged by the commandment “do not take revenge and do not hold a grudge[xiii]”. And the teaching that “those who are embarrassed but don't embarrass others and do not reply, acts out of love and rejoice in suffering, it is about them that the verse states “those he loves like when the sun comes out in it's strength[xiv]the conclusion is that depends on whether the scholar is appeased, and if the offender asked for forgiveness[xv]. This offers an interesting mix of advice to our leaders, with some thoughts our next premier might want to consider.

Cynics might question the sincerity of the politicians’ friendship I referred to. After all, we are taught, “Be careful with the ruling authorities, as they don't bring a person close except for their own purpose, they seem like loving friends at the time when it is for their benefit, but do not stand by a man in his time of pressure[xvi]”. I trust that be it Barry or Kristina, they will defy the trend to the best of their ability. My prayers are with them to navigate the challenges of the coming days and weeks.

[i] Observation by NSW Premier Kristina Keneally at St. Patricks day celebration that with two candidates one named Keneally and the other O'Farrel the winner of the election will be Irish. I have had several friendly conversations with the present premier and the opposition leader and consider them friends in the broad sense of the word.
[ii] Rema, Torat HaOla, chapter 1, cited in Torah Shlaima, volume 25, p265, ”that a person should be careful to avoid accidental sins, because he will see that he will be punished with his money because of his accidental sin, because also one who sins accidentally is called a sinner because a person is always a Muad (completely responsible, as opposed to the owner of a goring ox, whose ox is declared a “Tam”, and must only pay ½ the cost of damages caused the first three times before it's problematic nature is established).
[iii] Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, Tanya chapter 1
[iv] Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, Tanya chapter 26
[v] As reflected in the concept of Rashah Vra Lo, vs Rasha Vtov Lo.
[vi]  Psalm 51
[vii]  Psalm 51
[viii]  Zohar Pinchas 203, in Torah Shlaima vol.25, p 275
[ix] R. Itamar B. Yisroel, Mishmeret Itamar, Beshalach, cited in Weiss, S. (1990), Insights A Talmudic Treasury, Feldheim, Jerusalem, Israel  p.32
[x]     Talmud Yoma 22b following translation by Jastrow, M. (1989), A Dictionary, Judaica Press New York
[xi]    Talmud Yoma 22b
[xii]   Talmud Yoma 23a
[xiii]  Leviticus 19:18
[xiv] Judges 5, Talmud Shabbat 88b
[xv]  Rashi on Yoma 23a
[xvi] Pirkey Avot (Chapters of the Fathers) 2:3

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