Kol Nidre Message 5759

The lead paragraph in this past Sunday's (9/27/98) Week in Review section of the New York Times asks a fundamental question about the meaning of the American Presidency: Should the President be a moral leader? And if so, what is a moral leader? As we view the history of the American Presidency, we find that only a handful, at most, fit by any definition the role of moral leader. Abe Lincoln comes readily to mind as one who was personally honest and modest, while having the fortitude to lead the country in the Civil War and to buck public opinion. Another is Teddy Roosevelt, who used his "bully pulpit" to preach about honesty in government and to champion the underprivileged. But as we try to add to the list, we come up with honest people who were ineffectual leaders, or great leaders who were philanderers, dirty political infighters, slave-holders, and/or hypocrites. Indeed, most of our presidents have been flawed men, some more deeply so than others.

While we have a right to demand that our presidents not make moral laughingstocks out of themselves, I do not expect most aspirants to the presidency - successful and unsuccessful; past, present and future - to become moral leaders, however you care to define it. Most people cannot be like Moshe Rabbenu, who had the capacity to lead, be personally upright and humble, go against popular opinion, endanger himself, and to withstand Divine and public scrutiny. In our own times, the qualities of Moses and much more, especially money and television presence, are required for any person to be both a president and a moral leader.

So in a world bereft of Moshe Rabbenus and Abe Lincolns, in a society that tolerates philandering and foolishness as long as the economy is humming, what should be done to compensate? If he or she cannot be a moral leader him- or herself, then every president, indeed every other political leader, needs to have a personal moral leader. Jewish history has precedents, and on this Kol Nidre night, I want to share one with you, one that has been cited in the current news. I refer to none other than King David. Let me tell you his story:

Late one afternoon, David strolled on the roof of his palace and saw a beautiful woman bathing. One of his servants found out that the woman was Bathsheva, the wife of Uriah the Hittite. David sent for her and had an inappropriate relationship with her. She conceived, went back home, and later reported that she was pregnant. David determined that he was the father, because Uriah was too loyal and too good a soldier to spend any time at home with his wife in the midst of war.

David then send an order to Yoav, his field commander, "Place Uriah in the front line where the fighting is fiercest; then fall back so that he may be killed." Yoav followed the order, even though it went against military prudence. Uriah was killed. Bathsheva mourned her husband's death, but after the period of mourning was over, she became David's wife and bore him a son.

So no less a leader and hero than King David was capable of being a moral leader. And yet, he is considered the greatest of all of Israel's kings, and according to tradition, the Messiah will be his descendant. How could this be? We shall see as the story continues.

God was angry and sent Nathan the prophet to David. Nathan gave his king the following report:

"There were two men in the same city, one rich and one poor. The rich man had very large flocks and herds, but the poor man had only one little ewe lamb that he had bought. He tended it and it grew up together with him and his children: it used to share his morsel of food, drink from his cup, and nestle in his bosom; it was like a daughter to him. One day, a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man was loath to take anything from his own flocks or herds to prepare a meal for the guest...; so he took the poor man's lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him."

David flew into a rage against the rich man, and said to Nathan, "As Adonai lives, the man who did this deserves to die! He shall pay for the lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and showed no pity."

Then Nathan said to David, "Atta haIsh!" - "You are that man!" Nathan reminded David that God had given the king all of Israel and Judah, and all of the late King Saul's wives and slaves. If that had not been enough for David, God would have given him twice as much. Yet, David flouted God by stealing another man's wife and causing him to be killed on the front. Nathan concluded with these words, "You acted in secret, but I will make this happen in the sight of all Israel and in broad daylight."

When David heard those words, he had a choice. As a powerful, absolute monarch, he could have had Nathan taken away and executed, as King Henry VIII and other tyrants would have done. He could have covered up his crime, because only Yoav knew about it and he was not talking. He could have complained to his royal courtiers that Nathan was over-zealous. He could have dissembled. He could have made excuses. He could have blamed Bathsheva. But King David chose another path.

David simply declared before Nathan, "I stand guilty before Adonai!" He did not delay his confession or minimize his sins. He did not plea-bargain and ask for a lesser punishment. God took note of that so David's own life was spared, but he and Bathsheva suffered a grievous punishment nevertheless.

I do not mean to compare the current scandal in Washington with that of King David. What David did was exceedingly worse and he caused the death of an innocent man. Yet, David is now remembered as a great king and hero. For what will our current president be remembered?

Why did King David fare so well in the end? He was not a moral leader, at least not at the time of Bathsheva and Uriah. The crucial difference between King David and too many political leaders today is that David had a moral leader, and more importantly, David listened to him unconditionally. In contrast, so many people must have known or should have known what was going on inside the White House. Did even one person object and reproach the president? Possibly, but if so, we have no indication whatsoever that the president immediately recognized and admitted his guilt. Finally, a person from outside the White House, Sen. Lieberman spoke up.

(I am indebted to Rabbi Jack Riemer for his insights on King David as they relate to Pres. Reagan below.)

Let me tell you about another recent president, one whose politics I never admired, but who showed courage - Ronald Reagan. Do you remember his visit to the German military cemetery at Bitburg, where three Nazi Waffen SS criminals lie buried? Then Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who was just ousted this past Sunday, maneuvered Pres. Reagan into visiting the cemetery. At the time, the president did not know about the SS graves. By the time he did find out, he could not back off his visit without embarrassing his German ally and causing a rift in relations.

But an amazing thing happened before Mr. Reagan left for Germany. At a formal gathering, Elie Wiesel publicly castigated the president. In front of television cameras, Mr. Wiesel admonished, "Mr. President, your place is not in Bitburg, but with the victims." I still remember the look on Pres. Reagan's face and the tears streaming down his face.

However, that was not what was amazing. Nor were Elie Wiesel's words of rebuke. Do you want to know what was the amazing thing? The amazing thing was that Elie Wiesel's remarks were not a surprise to the president. He knew in advance exactly what Mr. Wiesel was going to say, because he had been given an advance text of the Nobel Laureate's remarks. Yet, Pres. Reagan allowed himself to be the object of a public rebuke by a moral leader, in front of the entire world.

What does this mean for us?

Babylonian Talmud, Arakhin 16b explains: "Do not hate your kinsfolk." You might think that that means that you may not hit him, you may not slap him, and you may not curse him. [Therefore,] the Torah says, "Do not hate your kinsfolk in your heart," meaning that it is about hatred within one's heart that the verse speaks [but other forms of rebuke are permitted].

How do we know that if you see a person do something improper (unseemly, indecent, scandalous) , you are obliged to reprove him? Because the Torah says, "Definitely rebuke your kinsman."

If you rebuke him and he did not accept it, how do we know that you must rebuke him again? Because Scripture says, "Definitely rebuke," indicating in all ways.

But the Rabbis warn us not to cause deliberately public embarrassment, since the Torah states, "and incur no guilt because of him."

In other words, my friends, we are commanded to reprove bad behavior, but to do so with love - not out of anger - and to avoid embarrassing the offender. We are not allowed to "hate in our hearts," that is to carry our hurts without some constructive action. And we are absolutely forbidden to talk exclusively behind a person's back. It is even more forbidden to listen to such gossip.

The Torah is teaching each and every one of us how to be moral leaders, as imperfect as we are, for our family, our friends, our colleagues, our bosses, our employees, our religious and political leaders, and our fellow citizens and congregants. It's a great task. It's a difficult task. But we are not expected to become prophets like Nathan or United States senators. Rather, we start with ourselves in our own small corners of the universe. None of us is in a position to go up to the president to call attention to his misdeeds. But you are all in a position to come up to me at appropriate times in private to call attention to my misdeeds, especially if you are the one who is hurt. This is what the Torah commands. One is not allowed to just hold it in or to gossip about it on the outside.

Why do I start with myself? Because I am safe. The worst that I can do is to become angry and defensive. God won't allow me to do anything more. I cannot cast an Ayin haRa on anyone. I cannot even deny anyone an aliyah for getting mad at me. And if God fails to do His job, the board of trustees of this synagogue will make up for it!

Our relationship with each other can become a paradigm for our relationships with our families and associates. I've lost count of the number of times in my career as a rabbi that close family members do not talk to each other, when quarrels simmer at weddings and bar/bat mitzvahs, when peculiar seating arrangements have to be devised to keep warring relatives apart. There was one bat mitzvah reception back on Long Island where the mother made sure that her own parents were seated as far away as possible. At least they were invited!

There is not one simple answer as to why such deep family rifts occur, but the root of a lot of them is the improper observance of the commandment in Leviticus, "You shall definitely reprove your peer..." It's so easy - indeed, it's human - for us to confront those who hurt us in an angry, blaming, accusatory way that puts the other on the defensive. It's not easy to go up to someone at the right time in a loving way. In fact, it's more tempting for us not to go up at all and, instead, to carry our hurts inside and to carry grudges and gossip. But Torah expects more.

On this Yom Kippur, God through the words of the Mahzor, is rebuking each of us in a loving yet firm way. He is not embarrassing us. He is not showing anger. God stands ready to forgive. He desires to grant atonement and reconciliation. And he wants each of us, who are created in His image, to follow His example with our own loved ones and with our acquaintances. We won't solve the problems of the presidency and the country, but if each of us does our own small parts, we can help to raise the level of moral leadership in our country and world.

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