I happened to look at a letter I received many years ago from someone I barely knew. At the request of a mutual friend, I had reached out in a moment of crisis with some guidance from the wisdom of our tradition. I encouraged this person to acknowledge the circumstances of his undoing, apologize and seek forgiveness. I referenced the Talmudic dictum that long predates the Fifth Amendment – a person may not testify against himself in court, both because of self-interest and because he may not view himself as wicked.
The letter was appreciative, but still very raw. “I will try to remember the good man I have tried to be,” he wrote, in the midst of his recognition of a terrible mistake.
In the years since, I have had no contact with this man, but I wonder where the particular behavior fits in his sense of self. He has gone on to do good, coming closer to the “good man I have tried to be” than I imagine he thought possible. I hope he has been forgiven, most especially by himself, but I cautioned him that he would have to recognize that what he did would never be forgotten. What I did not add would have been salt on a wound: it is a good thing to be reminded of your shortcomings every now and then, and better still to remember them yourself.
As I am writing this a public figure is dealing with a perverse addiction that looks like it will cost him his family and his livelihood. Addiction is not a “clean” illness – one with identifiable causes, symptoms and treatments – and judgment (and jokes) will abound. Self-awareness is not a cure for compulsion, just to be clear.
But a lapse in judgment that leads to falling short of the “good man I have tried to be” is the very definition of sin. And the awareness that I am not immune from the temptations of sinfulness is the major step in not repeating bad behavior.
I know; that sound so religious. It sounds so “Old Testament.” It is.
The hunk of Deuteronomy that is read in synagogues this week (11:26-16:17) seems to be an eclectic collection of social, moral and ritual instruction. Any excerpt from it can provide an endless amount of learning. But taken as a whole, it feels like the life my correspondent needs to live.
You can argue about the organization of the topics and the division of the weekly units of focus in the Torah, but what we have inherited has a legacy of its own. For close to two thousand years Jews have considered these verses together, and their proximity is therefore as much fair game as their content.
We so love to point out the compassion and consideration inherent in instructions like "If there is anyone among you in need...willingly lend enough for the need..." (15:7-8). We point to the wisdom, unintentionally scientific, of "Do not eat anything that dies of itself..." (14:21). We have built celebrations and inspirations on the mandate for our festivals to remember our liberation (16:3, 12) and to be only joyous (16:15).
But we tend to ignore the merciless instructions in immediate proximity to destroy the social infrastructure of the Land if it is tainted by paganism, or to put to death the dissident who is enticed by pagan practices – including leveling an entire town if the inhabitants are "led astray."
Our sagacious ancestors understood that some of the more difficult passages of the Bible (like these) were simply unacceptable in the context of the compassion and consideration with which they were juxtaposed. So they set about fencing them in. The requirement to annihilate the pagans in the Land was specific to one generation. The imitation of pagan practices had to be with malice aforethought. The circumstances of an entire town "going astray" were very specific and virtually unattainable. They maintained the sacred immutability of the text while acknowledging the bruising impact it could have on the highly mutable human soul to act in such a way.
An awful lot of times in our society we remember the good people we try to be while selectively forgetting the times we have fallen short of that mark. We like to remember the best of who we are and compare it to the worst of who others are, as my friend and teacher Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff often says. In these times of extreme pronouncements from furious fanatics, it is not unusual to hear political figures or even heads of state declare the moral bankruptcy of an opponent based on some generalized judgment while the singular effort of one admirable character becomes the benchmark for their own supporters.
But as summer hurtles into the season of reflection and penitence on the Jewish calendar – and the intensity of political campaigns on the American calendar – it is a good thing to be reminded of our shortcomings now, and even better to remember them ourselves. When we are tempted to point to the sins of others and to entire communities "led astray," it is worth recalling the good people we try to be, but sometimes aren't.