Thursday, July 02, 2009

A weekly torah takeaway by Amichai Lau-Lavie

A year-long Jerusalem Journey, action by action, verb by verb. Each week I pluck a verb from the Torah portion and set it reverberating both with its context and with my own. Let's make this a conversation, and talk our walk.


It’s odd, but I feel badly for the Madoffs. Aren’t they, in some way, also victims of the sins of their father? Bernie’s sentence of 150 years behind bars will likely mean that he will die in prison, but as he himself declared in court – his legacy will outlive his mortality – and his family name will be forever associated with disgrace and the sins of excess. I was sitting in JFK airport on my way to Chicago when CNN announced the verdict. People in the terminal clapped. A woman sitting next to me exclaimed “not good enough! That sinner should burn in hell before he is sent to prison on tax payers’ money.”

I walked away.

I hate this word – ‘sinner’ – no matter the context, it just rubs me wrong way (maybe because I’ve been labeled as such by more than one righteous homophobe?) – But walking through the airport, watching the ripples of reactions to the verdict, I thought about it some more. When does a crime become a sin? And when does someone who committed a crime become labeled ‘sinner’ – and is it revocable? Are some sins worthy of forgiveness while others never worthy of atonement? Is it about size of harm or is it about intention? When is the bad guy really 100% the bad guy??

Don’t get me wrong – I have no sympathy for the man himself. His scheme toppled many organizations and destroyed the lives of countless families. My own organization, Storahtelling, relying on generous funding from foundations and individuals for about 60% of our annual budget, is suffering badly because of Bernie. We’re trying to make the best of a bad situation, like so many others – but honestly, and I’m not a violent man – given the chance – I’d feel really good about punching him hard. But I still hesitate to name him a sinner. And it’s not just semantics. Who am I to cast the first stone? And still, in this case, maybe, when evil intent and ethical misconduct is so blatantly obvious and admitted – maybe ‘sinner’ is just right? (and let’s not forget Governor Sanford, yet another of the fallen lustful, or even Michael Jackson, RIP, whose records may be platinum but police record is far from golden – are they too sinners? Or just folks who messed up?)

The delicacies of sinful behavior are popular biblical stuff, and this week’s Torah episode, Balak, is a lot about messing up. Named for the King of the Moabite people who hires a soothsayer to curse the people of Israel, this narrative is really about the transformation of the one-eyed soothsayer – Balaam. The king, as leaders will, is turning to religious leaders for political gain, and he wants Balaam to put a spell on Israel. At first Balaam resists the royal commission but is finally convinced (by God, in a dream) to agree, and to travel to where the Hebrews are camping, and there, using his magical powers, proclaim their doom. (It’s important to remember that words can kill – think critics of theaters or movies or restaurants or new fashion collections or new public policies.) Balaam’s journey is described in great detail, introducing one of the more colorful animals in the Bible (evoked, millennia later, in the movie ‘Shrek’) – the talking donkey. As Balaam, riding the so-far-mute mule, travels along, an angel appears on the road, wielding a sword, attempting to stop the prophet’s mission. For all his spiritual powers, Balaam is oblivious. But the donkey is not – she (it’s a she-ass) sees the terrifying angel and recoils in fear. Balaam hits the animal, hard, three times, before she opens her mouth and addresses him, in perfect Hebrew, explaining the situation. Only then does Balaam get what’s going on, his eyes opening to the supernatural reality of this unnatural condition. He addresses the angel with the type of remorse usually reserved for penitent sinners:
"And Balaam said to the angel of God: 'I have sinned; for I did not know that you stood on the path to stop me; and now, since you are displeased, I will turn back.'" (Numbers 22:34)

Balaam’s sin is the hitting of the donkey. In Hebrew, the word for donkey, ‘Hamor,’ is derived from the same root for ‘matter’ or ‘substance’. The great prophet is frustrated by reality and actually hitting the physical dimension of his life. The donkey is an extension of his body – but it is also a symbol for an animated, animalistic being in the world that is connected to life in a profound, sometimes disturbing way. Balaam’s sin is not just the violence – he hurts his loyal, innocent animal– it is the very expression of human short-sightedness. His is the sin of limited, selective vision and misplaced rage – he simply doesn’t see the big picture.

It turns out OK. He opens his mouth, much like his donkey does, and blessings emerge, including ‘how fine are your tents O children of Jacob’ – the poetry of a pagan prophet that made it into scripture and Jewish liturgy. But even though he gets the credit for philo-semitic sentiments – his earlier sins are not forgotten and never quite forgiven. A few weeks from now, the Torah will describe the big battle between Israel and Midyan – Balaam, enemy of Israel, will be among the slain.

So who’s a sinner and what’s a sin? Perhaps limited perspective – the choice of purposefully and selfishly refusing to see the full picture of what one’s life is about and how the actions one chooses influence the lives of others – for better or for worse – perhaps that’s the defining mode of sin – and that’s what makes a sinner.

Bernie will have lots of time to think about this, and other questions of ethical essence. Back from Chicago, packing up the Storahtelling office (we gotta move, thanks Bernie) I am grateful for the opportunity to also consider the ethics of what to do with wrong behaviors and how to deal with or forgive the ones whose sins have hurt the lives of those I love. Hate the sin – not the sinner, I’ve been taught. Mr. Madoff – you’re truly an ass, and quite the sinner but I hope you find some way to do more than say ‘I’m sorry’ to fix what you’ve done. Balaam’s prophecy – ‘this people shall rise like a lion, overcoming woe’ resonates deeply today. We shall overcome.


  1. Katie DownJuly 02, 2009

    We were talking about Madoff today. I am in Macedonia. Many sins have been committed here in the Balkans. I was wondering what kind of country club prison they will put him in or will it be an actual prison? He should have been ordered to do community service and forced into the position of Development Director for all the non-profits he screwed in this process. Going to prison ain't gonna cut it for payback. Shalom and Pozdrav!

  2. I, too, have trouble with casting the first stone. And yet as a Second Generation Holocaust survivor, I've raged plenty against the evil and "sins" of the Nazis who destroyed many members of my family along with millions of others during WWII. Many of those evildoers went on to live quiet lives in foreign lands, disguised as peaceloving citizens. But many have also been hunted down and tried for their crimes.

    I guess we're the lucky ones, the survivors of evil who get "to consider the ethics of what to do with wrong behaviors."

  3. A couple of (mostly unrelated) thoughts:

    1) The article, and a comment, refer to "casting the first stone." It's worth remembering that "let he who is without sin cast..." is what Jesus said. The Tanach, by contrast, says that the first stone should be cast by the accuser - in other words, the idea was to make people take responsibility for their statements. You can't accuse someone and then walk away. Casting a stone, as it were, at Madoff isn't a problem - I don't think that many of us would be hard-pressed to defend our comments about him!

    2) In the end, Judaism talks much less about "sinners" than it does about "sin." A person is defined by how they act, and we all act in different ways. So, trying to decide who is a sinner and who isn't is mostly pointless. We all sin, sometimes, and we all don't sin, sometimes. I don't have much interest in an existential debate about the overall "quality" of Madoff. Too theoretical. But, to look as his actions, decry them as evil and then insist that he be made accountable for those actions - that seems reasonable.

    Is Madoff a sinner? I'm not sure I can answer that. Did Madoff sin? Absolutely. Is he paying for his sin? Yes. That seems more important, at least to me.

  4. AnonymousJuly 03, 2009

    Actually, before "Shrek" there was "Frances the Talking Mule" movies in the 1950's. See this Wikipedia entry,