Rabbi Alexandra Wright, 1 September 2017The Hebrew month of Ellul offers a period of introspection and self-examination leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Although the prayers we recite during these days are expressed in the collective first person plural – “we have sinned, we have transgressed” – the festivals, more than any other time during the year, focus on the individual and our own sins of commission or omission.
But how hard it is as one becomes more despairing of the ways of the world, more worried about the well-being of a new generation embattled by education, employment and morality, to take the time for even a moment of reflection. It’s much easier to look outwards, to deflect the weakness and flaws in ourselves on to others. There are times when, looking at the faces of men who have committed the most depraved acts – perpetrators of sexual abuse in Rotherham or Rochdale, Newcastle or Oxford – or reading the words of a Franz Stangl, the Commandant of Treblinka, I ask myself how are these acts conceivable, let alone possible? Why do people take such corrupt advantage of vulnerable young girls? We yearn to understand how a cultured Austrian family man can send thousands of men, women and children to their deaths without a shred of remorse or regret, a man for whom the simple terms – ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ ‘guilt’ or ‘innocence’ have no meaning. But on a more profound level, we search the face of the criminal as we would look into a mirror, for as the Baal Shem Tov said, “when we see faults in them, we must realize that they only reflect the evil in us.” And two hundred and fifty years later, Sigmund Freud noted: “We hate the criminal and deal severely with him because we view in his deed, as in a distorting mirror, our own criminal instincts.”
Parashat Ki Tetze provides a collection of laws about responsibility and accountability: they include laws governing relationships between family members, neighbours, Israelites and non-Israelites, victors and prisoners of war, laws of fairness with regard to payment of wages on time and the protection of the stranger, orphan and widow, as well as our duty to assist a fallen animal and to refrain from muzzling an ox while it is threshing.
Responsibility requires a particular courage and humility. The failure to protect others from danger is an act of arrogance and self-exaltation, suggests the 16th/17th century Prague-born Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz. In relation to the verse that requires the householder to build a parapet for their roof to prevent criminal negligence should someone fall from the edge, Horowitz reads the verse metaphorically: The ascent to one’s roof is a symbol of privilege and the elevation of position. Such honours can make us arrogant and full of pride. That is why the Torah advocates the building of a fence – a mechanism in our own personality, to protect us from pride, arrogance and flight from responsibility. If we don’t rein ourselves in, if we fail to practise humility, then we will fall horribly.
In a society which increasingly looks towards litigation as a way of forcing individuals or organisations to be accountable for negligence or failures, taking responsibility becomes even more difficult. How many times do you hear a plea for excuses when something doesn’t turn out the way we expected? How often have you witnessed the offloading of responsibility to create space for a culture of blame? Evasion of responsibility can often lead not simply to lack of accountability, but falsehood and corruption.
Conversely though, sometimes perhaps we are too quick to judge our fellow human beings for failures of responsibility, to blame them and criticise them for their actions or negligence. Hillel’s saying from Pirkei Avot: Al tadin et chaver’cha ad she-tagia lim’komo – “Do not judge your fellow human being until you find yourself in their situation” (2:5) reminds us that there are times when we might excuse ourselves more leniently than we do others. How many times do we judge someone’s actions out of context, stripped of the circumstances which surround it? And even when we ascertain some of the details, can we really be in a position to judge unless we can, in some way, develop empathy and feel ourselves entirely in the position of the person we judge. Once we have put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, then we can ask ourselves, would we really have acted any differently? This is not about formulating excuses, but understanding someone else’s story, a story which may be very different from our own. When we learn more about an individual, about the circumstances of their background, then, one hopes, our judgement is tempered by a sense of compassion and understanding.
The Rabbis, keenly sensitive to their own qualities of judgement and mercy say that at the very moment God was about to create the first human being, God saw future generations of the righteous and wicked arising from them. God said: “If I create this human being, wicked people will spring from it; if I do not create it, how are the righteous to spring from it?” What did God do? Disregarding the way of the wicked, God hid it from his ministering angels and revealed only that the righteous would arise from Adam.
I like the idea that somehow God, as it were, takes responsibility for the faults of humanity, concealing from the self-righteous angels the true nature of human beings. If the quality of mercy is not strained in God, how much more so should that be true of ourselves in the freedom of our generosity and understanding towards others and in the balance of judgement and compassion we extend to ourselves. These days of Ellul allow us to modulate those qualities, to consider our judgement and criticism and find again the mercy and kindness of which the Torah speaks in its urgent care for the needy and destitute, the stranger, widow and orphan: “Always remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I enjoin you to observe this commandment” (Deuteronomy 24:22).
Share this Thought for the Week