Saturday, July 6, 2013

Mea Culpa / Devarim

Those of us who grew up with Mad Magazine have the image of Alfred E Nueman emblazoned in our memories, as it was so often on the covers of Mad, and can see him saying, “What, me worry?”;  When God asks Adam if he has eaten the fruit from the forbidden tree, he replies, “The woman You put at my side — she gave me of the tree, and I ate.” (Genesis 3:12) Not only does Adam refuse responsibility, he shifts the blame to God: “the woman You gave me…”

From our earliest days, we have the sense that denying responsibility is the best strategy for evading punishment: “I didn’t spill the milk.” “I didn’t break the vase.” “I didn’t hit him.” “I didn’t take her toy.” We would hope that with time, we all learn to accept responsibility for our mistakes, but how many CEOs and bank executives have we seen stand before a Congressional hearing, or a TV camera, and deny responsibility for actions that sent our entire economy into a tailspin and caused immeasurable suffering in the lives of tens of thousands of people?

Accepting responsibility is a tough thing to do given the human tendency toward denial, and the seduction of shifting responsibility onto someone else’s shoulders. It appears that even Moses is struggling with accepting responsibility for his mistake.

This week we read parshat Devarim, the first portion in Book of Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy is a collection of Moses’ final speeches, recapitulating the Israelites’ four decades in the Wilderness and the laws they received there.

Moses emphasizes what a burden the Israelites have been: rebellious, distrustful, and disloyal. He recounts the disastrous episode of the spies sent to reconnoiter the Land of Israel. But the account in the Book of Numbers and Moses’ retelling in the Book of Deuteronomy, don’t line up.

In the Book of Numbers, parshat Shelach Lekha, when the people are terrified by the report brought back by the spies and refuse to entertain the possibility that they can defeat the inhabitants of the Land God grows furious and says to Moses:

“How long will this people spurn Me, and how long will they have no faith in Me despite all the things that I have performed in their midst? I will strike them with pestilence and disown them, and I will make of you a nation far more numerous than they!” (Numbers 14:11-12)

In the B’midbar (Book of Numbers) account, God makes a similar threat as was made in the incident of the Golden Calf. Here, as there, Moses talks God into forgiving, rather than destroying, the people. God decrees, however, that this generation will die in the Wilderness and a new generation will enter the Land. No mention is made of Moses dying in the Wilderness. Yet when Moses recounts the episode of the spies in this week’s parashah, note how he tells the story:

When the Lord heard your loud complaint, He was angry. He vowed: Not one of these men, this evil generation, shall see the good land that I swore to give to your fathers — none except Caleb son of Jephunneh; he shall see it, and to him and his descendants will I give the land on which he set foot, because he remained loyal to the Lord. Because of you the Lord was incensed with me too, and He said: You shall not enter it either. Joshua son of Nun, who attends you, he shall enter it. Imbue him with strength, for he shall allot it to Israel. (Deuteronomy 1:34-38)

Is this why Moses will not enter the Land? Is it the people’s fault? Has their rebelliousness poisoned God’s view of Moses’ faithfulness?

When we look back, again in B’midbar (the Book of Number) we find that Torah tells us that it is the incident, shortly after the death of Miriam in Kadesh, which leads to God’s decree that Moses will die in the Wilderness:

Moses took the rod from before the Lord, as He had commanded him. Moses and Aaron assembled the congregation in front of the rock; and he said to them, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” And Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod. Out came copious water, and the community and their beasts drank. But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.” (Numbers 20:9-14)

However we understand the meaning of the incident, it is clear that this act — striking the rock twice — is why Moses will never enter the Land of Israel. Yet in his retelling, Moses shifts the blame onto the Israelites: Because of you the Lord was incensed with me too, and He said: You shall not enter [the Land] either (Deuteronomy 1:37). It appears that even Moses, like Adam, evades responsibility and foists blame on others.

I found this helpful explanation of why we are so reticent to admit our mistakes to the point of concocting lies and blaming others. (This explanation appears on several websites attributed to different authors.)

“When our behavior threatens our self-concept, our ego automatically goes into hyper-defense mode, circles the wagons, and begins issuing self-justifications designed to protect itself. The higher the moral, financial, and emotional stakes, the more our self-concept – our very identity — is threatened, the greater the dissonance that arises, the harder it is to admit a mistake, and the more we seek to justify ourselves to preserve our self-image. Self-justifications are not lies, where we know we’re being dishonest, nor are they excuses; rather, we believe the justifications to be true, and truly think that they show we are not to blame.”

It’s much too easy to criticize this all-too-human tendency, which is linked to a powerful need to defend one’s sense of self. It is easy to empathize with someone who wants to avoid admitting a mistake. Perhaps more helpful than criticism and judgment, is inspiration. I have two examples: one from the Mishnah, and one from the 21st century.

First the Mishnah. Tractate Eduyot 1:12-14 records a series of halakhic decisions in which the rival schools of Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai disagree. In each case cited in these three mishnayot, Bet Hillel admitted that they were in error and Bet Shammai was correct, and accordingly changed their opinions. The cases cited cover a wide range of topics. In each case, Bet Hillel had to overcome their sense that their pre-eminence in the early Rabbinic world made their halakhic judgments correct, and admit their mistakes.

Fast forward to this century: In 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated during re-entry, killing all seven crew members aboard (including Ilan Ramon, a colonel in the Israeli Air Force) and creating a debris field stretching from Texas to Louisiana. The disaster resulted from damage sustained during liftoff: a small piece of foam broke off, struck one of the wings, and damaged the shuttle’s thermal protection system. The launch integration manager, N. Wayne Hale Jr. certainly could have denied responsibility, given the complexity of the shuttle, the number of people involved in its construction, maintenance, and operation. Instead, he said:

“I had the opportunity and the information and I failed to make use of it. I don’t know what an inquest or a court of law would say, but I stand condemned in the court of my own conscience to be guilty of not preventing the Columbia disaster… The bottom line is that I failed to understand what I was being told; I failed to stand up and be counted. Therefore look no further; I am guilty of allowing the Columbia to crash.”

Whatever else may be said of N. Wayne Hale Jr.’s competence (something else I don’t wish to judge), his forthright admission and willingness to take responsibility for his mistakes marks him as a man of courage and integrity, a fine model for all of us.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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