Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Leadership and Loss

We live in a time of disgraced leaders. From the Bernie Madoffs of the financial world to the out-going prime minister of Israel, Ehud Olmert it has become increasingly difficult to know whom to trust. And its not just individuals who have disappointed. Its whole institutions. Banks, historically the image of propriety, have been shamefully irresponsible, and with our moneys.
Large corporations, the symbols of stability, like GM, have squandered fortunes, and have cost their investors huge losses in personal savings.

The Torah this week anoints a community within the community of Israel. It designates Aharon and his children to serve the public as mediators between them and G-d. They are given the title of Kohein. They are garbed in special clothes. They are given esteem and privilege. They are our leaders.

And all that is inherited generation after generation. Could any institution or group of individuals be more set-up for corruption. Is it any wonder that we find instance after instance recorded in both Tanach and Talmud of corrupt priests. With the temptations of abuse before them it is a wonder that the priesthood remained as pure as it was.

It is interesting to note that according to halacha a kohein is not disqualified from Temple service for most violations of Torah observance. On the contrary he is mandated to serve even if he sins. Only for the most severe of sins, like idol worship, would a Kohein lose his privileges. And even then, according to Rashi and Rabbeinu Gershom, if he repents he can reclaim his role.

I suspect the Torah was teaching us something here. It was saying to us that the privilege of the Kohein is not given to him because of any personal deserts. He is not a role-model. He serves because he is a descendant of Aharon and his honors come to him because of what he does, not who he is.

In providing an institutionalization of the priesthood the Torah was telling us "Bring the Kohein your animals for sacrifice....but your relationship with G-d must be your own." The Kohein may have had the power and position...but he never had the trust of the people unless it was personally earned.

In fact in an interesting way the Torah model protects us from the disillusionment we witness in our day. Precisely because the right to the priesthood is not personal we are protected from believing in the kohein, only to be disappointed.

Truth is the Torah wants us to have an individual relationship with G-d. We cannot idealize a man or a group and then think we can ride their coat-tails to heaven. We cannot say I may not be so good but I support a good organization and let it be enough. The Christians believe they can live in mediocrity and identify with their God-figure and be 'saved'. We know our deliverance depends on our actions/deeds and needs to be earned. The kohein can do the Temple service for us. He can help foster atonement. But Teshuva is our work.

No, despite the temptations to compare, the Kohein never was the Bernie Madoff of the spiritual world. We never believed in him. And hence no matter his personal behaviors we never lost the investments we made through him in reconciliation and intimacy with Hashem.

The lesson learned for me in this is the one I hear the wise investor, the one who didn't lose his/her money, say all the time now...."you cannot trust others, on the basis of faith, with that which you most value."
So while it is true that I need people to to believe in, people to help me see the way....Its also true that nothing is of greater value to me than doing the will of Hashem. And to know His will and that I am aligned with it I will need to investigate carefully before I blindly trust!

Shabbat Shalom

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