Friday, September 28, 2012

The Book of Death and the Book of Mormon

I LOVE SPEAKING TO OTHER Rabbis to find out how what they are going to speak about on Yom Kippur. What are they going to focus on? What do they think are the most essential concepts to focus on going in to next year? In Manhattan, we are blessed to have a collection of some of the most talented Rabbinic speakers in the world. Yet, it is another Yom Kippur speech today that is getting all the attention.

Today, the “democratically elected” president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is speaking to the UN General Assembly. This, after the attacks on US embassies throughout the Middle East, makes us wonder how we should feel about the events of the past three weeks?

The Kli Yakar (Lvov and Prague, 1550-1619) asks a basic but important question. He wonders, if the Kohen Gadol (high priest) is not allowed would die if he entered into the Holy of Holies all year round, why is he allowed in on Yom Kippur? Either it is too holy for him to enter or it’s not, how can there be a one day exception?

He answers that the reason that he can’t enter is because he is a representative of the entire Jewish people, and the discretions of the entire nation are too numerous for him to withstand the Divine judgment needed to allow him into this sanctuary. However, on Yom Kippur we are angels. We are treated as if we are free of sin and without a Yetzer Harah (desire to sin). The Kohen Gadol can enter the Holy of Holies because our merit, and lack of indiscretions, allows him to enter unencumbered by our misdeeds.

On Yom Kippur, our conscious is clear. Our minds are free. Our values are unambiguous. We need to asses and clarify those values on Yom Kippur and use that to light the way for the rest of the year. We must be true to our values, because it is very easy to allow them to be compromised.
On September 11th, 2012, as the Egyptian protesters were beginning to surround the U.S. Embassy, they released the following statement:

“The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims – as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions. Today, the 11th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Americans are honoring our patriots and those who serve our nation as the fitting response to the enemies of democracy.”

On the morning of September 13th, after the attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Libya and the murder of ambassador Chris Stevens, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said:
"The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others, our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. But let me be clear: There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind."

The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others? Really? It is now U.S. policy to actively protest and speak out against denigrating other religions? If you walk down Broadway less than 30 blocks you’ll come upon a little show called “The Book of Mormon”, which won Best Musical at the 2011 Tony Awards and opened this year’s awards with a musical number. “The Book of Mormon” openly mocks the Mormon faith. It is so popular that celebrities are often seen at the show including Cher, Jack Nicholson and none other than Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

To the best of my knowledge, she was not there protesting “The Book of Mormon” for an intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. I have yet to see the government come out with statements condemning “The Book of Mormon”, or its creators’ Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s TV show South Park, which regularly lampoons every religion and creed, including Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Scientology.

If the United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others, than we should not allow Ahmadinijad, the most blatant abuser of that tolerant ideal, to pass through customs. What does it say that this hate-monger, who props up an equally evil regime in Syria, is allowed free passage and to speak his hateful mind on U.S. soil?

If we have a value that we hold dear, then we need to be consistent about it. We need to fight for it. If we truly believe that freedom of speech is a value that we hold dear, than why would we even begin to state that we “deplore any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others”? All that does is call into question how much we truly value freedom of speech. If we want our values to have any merit, any credibility, we need to constantly be strengthening them.

We are either building trust and credibility or we are destroying it. Every action we do, every statement we make, we are either building a foundation of credibility, or we are slowly destroying it. In 1966 the United States has close to 200,000 troops in Vietnam, and polls showed that the government had a 66% approval rating for their involvement in the region. However, by the late sixties/early seventies the government had lost support for the war. Why? Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense during the war, wrote in his memoir In Retrospect that the problem is that the government began lying to the American people. They were understating how unlikely it was to win the war, and overstating how good the war was going. As what they were saying wasn't matching up to what people knew was happening, slowly the government lost credibility and the trust of the people.

The results might not be obvious at first, but when we are losing credibility and trust, in time it comes back to bite us. It makes small mistakes seem bigger, and it prevents people for cutting us any slack.

The big story this past week was the replacement referees in the NFL. The NFL’s big mistake was thinking that as long as the TV ratings weren’t falling, the quality of the games didn’t matter. That is very short sighted. Ultimately, you are building trust or losing it, gaining credibility or diminishing it. Every action, every statement is doing one of those two things. The NFL was losing credibility day by day, and they didn’t seem to understand that. It can take decades to build a reputation, but it can all be lost in a matter of days or weeks.

Just look at Joe Paterno. He was at Penn State for six decades, building a rock solid reputation that seemed to be based on a consistent commitment to his core values. In the end, he lost it all. As John Amechi, a former Penn St. basketball player said of Paterno, “You can’t be a part time man of principle.” The foundation of their moral standing had appeared strong, but ultimately it was shown to be compromised. They had cut corners, they had pushed uncomfortable truths under the rug, they had postponed difficult decisions indefinitel and allowed their credibility to slowly erode until it affected their very core.

This wasn’t one decision, one “mistake” in not properly reporting Jerry Sandusky’s crimes, it was the daily ignoring of what they had seen and what they had heard. From 2001-2012 at least four men: Joe Paterno, Tim Curley, Grant Spanier and Mike McQueery went to work every day, saw Jerry Sandusky working with children in his Second Mile program and forced their conscious deeper and deeper down until it had been blocked from sunlight. Their credibility eroded every time they chose to ignore what they suspected, and quite possibly knew. You can’t have an eleven year “mistake”, it was a willful ignoring of their most basic morality that caused things to crumble so completely.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik asked: why are there a book of life and a book of death? If there is a book of life, then by default whoever is not in that book is not getting the benefits therein. Why does Hashem need a second book, a book of death? He answers that it is not a “book of death”, but rather a “book to judge the dead”. This time of year Hashem is judging the deceased as well. They are being judged on the long term ramifications of their actions. Did our grandparents fight tooth and nail to remain Jewish when it was extremely difficult to do so, did they save money for our parents or our Jewish education? Did they help someone get back on their feet, or introduce someone to their Bashert? If so, they are still racking up merit.

Our actions can affect the merit of our ancestors, and our actions today will affect generations to come. We have to think long term. We need to build a solid foundation of trust and credibility, of honesty and responsibility. We need to be consistent to our values. We need to create something so lasting that it will last for generations to come.

Rabbi Joshua Strulowitz is an Orthodox rabbi. He is rabbi of the West Side Institutional Synagogue in Manhattan. Follow him on Twitter at @RabbiStrul.