By now, just about everyone in the Jewish community has heard about the events that occurred yesterday. I was going to blog about the arrests, but then thought better of it, as there were already a thousand different bloggers covering every angle of it and there really wasn't much more that I felt that I could add to the conversation. I don't know all the facts, although I tend to think that the FBI doesn't engage in two-year sting operations just to nab innocent guys off the street.
That being said, I think we can all agree that this is a major embarrassment for the Jewish community in the Tri-State area and worldwide. And, in the end, it just didn't have to be.
There are those who want to say that (at least some of the accused) did it to support Torah or tzedaka organizations. I don't know how naive these people are being -- perhaps it is true for some of the accused, perhaps it's not. But for the sake of argument, let's give them the benefit of the doubt and say that the money was primarily going towards charity or the support of Torah organizations. So what?
I think it behooves people to learn that no matter how noble the emotion, no matter how right the cause and no matter how urgent the matter, there are just some lines that one cannot cross. Consider, for example, an organization that helps people finance Yeshiva tuition for needy families. The people who are in charge of fund raising for the organization would probably move heaven and earth to help young children receive a Torah education. If they could move a huge mountain to raise funds, they would do so. But they have to know that while moving that mountain, they have to stop at the small stone that serves as a boundary marker onto their neighbor's property. Once you move that small stone, you're engaging in theft, which is wrong and cannot be tolerated for any noble purpose.*
So, by all means -- if it's your job to raise money for tzedaka or Torah institutions, make sure that you do so honestly. Do everything that you can within the law, but make sure you stay there.
And that advice doesn't apply to this situation alone. It applies anywhere and everywhere. If, for example, it's your job to make the lives of Jewish prisoners easier, by all means do so -- but don't step over the line of what is proper and right (and certainly don't obliterate the line). And on and on.
I always find it amazing that people who engage in these activities (again, going with the [perhaps naive] assumption that they had "good intentions") end up doing far more harm than good. The institutions that they sought to raise funds for will certainly end up suffering far more harm than if they didn't engage in their activities. And the life for Jewish prisoners in NYC certainly didn't become any easier after Rabbi Glantz left his job because of the bar mitzvah party held for a prisoner's son. Indeed, because people broke the law (or ethical boundaries), those people and institutions that they sought to help are going to end up suffering even more.
Of course, the big question that we have to ask ourselves is, what now? What do we, as a community, do now? We pay a lot of lip service to the idea of trying to rectify our mistakes. We learn that the Second Temple was destroyed due to the sin of baseless hatred, so we pay a lot of lip service to the idea of improving on that defect (although, how much we actually improve is certainly open to debate). We learn that the sin of the Spies was due to the sin of Lashon HaRah, and so we seek to improve ourselves in this area.
So, what do we learn from yesterday's events? What can we do to improve? What can we do to try to ensure that something like this doesn't happen again?
A friend of mine said that the likely outcome would be this:
What we'll see is a bunch of spokesmen issue statements about how bad these alleged crimes are, which will get little media coverage and will be totally ignored internally. Nothing in the community will change. We will go on with our lives and the community will move on to the next crisis.
Sadly, I fear he may be right... but it doesn't have to be.
A while ago, a young man that I know got himself into some fairly serious trouble. Things looked very bleak for him at the time and he turned to me for help and advice.
While there wasn't too much that I could do at the time to help his situation, I gave him the following common-sense advice: I told him that when things are really looking down, and when the world is falling apart, it behooves a young man such as himself to take a look at where he is, and look at the path that he took which led him to this point. He should take the opportunity to look at his deeds, his actions and his motivations and take a long, hard look at himself and see where he went wrong, and what he can do to stop going down that road. Sometimes you just have to look in the mirror, no matter how painful it is, and actively work towards fixing your problems.
I think the same applies to us as a community. I think that we need to address problems that we've long turned a blind eye to. We have to look at the behaviors that we've tolerated for the sake of personal prestige or for financial contributions and recognize that we were wrong for having tolerated them. We have to make a positive commitment that those behaviors that will no longer be tolerated in our community. We have to make sure that people know that financial misdeeds, child abuse, and a host of other problems that we have long ignored will no longer be tolerated and that those who commit them cannot be welcome in our communities.
It's a difficult thing to do. It means deviating from the path of least resistance and taking the hard path of standing up to people who are rich and/or influential. It means that our leaders have to do just that -- lead -- by example and by deed. If a rav will publicly stand up to someone who is corrupt and rich and say "no, I don't want your filthy money!" it would go a long way toward sending the message that these activities are wrong and will not be tolerated.
But someone has to stand up and be the first. A recognized leader has to step up and make that initial effort. Someone has to make that initial effort -- that opening the size of an eye of a needle. And it has to be one of the gedolim -- because someone who takes a difficult but correct stand, someone who leads and serves as a role model for others -- that, in my definition is a gadol.
I fear that my friend may be right -- that nothing will come of this and we'll just go on to the next crisis. But nonetheless, I hope and pray that we can learn from this and take the necessary steps to improve as a community.
* Yes, pikuach nefesh and all that -- but we're not talking about someone like Jean ValJean whose nephew was going to literally starve unless he stole.