On Doing Wrong and Staying Home

What Moed Katan 17a can teach us about holding our leaders accountable

One of the challenges of teaching Torah is finding a balance between learning Torah for its own sake—often known as Torah Lishmah—and learning Torah that feels particularly relevant to my students’ experiences. On one hand, learners do not always want to spend their time contending with laws and arguments that do not seem to have anything to do with their own questions and challenges. On the other hand, the Jewish textual tradition is full of rich debates and ideas that are deeply beautiful and important, even if they are not immediately relevant. Finally, Torah taught with a particular outcome in mind can often feel stilted or shallow, with the texts retrofitted for the message, rather than the other way around.

The more I teach, though, the more I realize that there are messages for us hiding in every moment. The rabbis teach that every generation of Jews—even those who won’t be born for centuries or millennia, whether they are born Jewish or choose to convert—were standing at Mount Sinai when God gave the Torah. However, we do not all receive the same Torah. Instead, every generation can and should receive the Torah that they need for their particular moment. There is a reason that the rabbis say that there are 70 faces of the Torah.

In this newsletter, I’ll be sharing words of Torah that grow out of my teaching and learning that end up speaking to our particular moment. Of course, right now, when the world is focused on the global Coronavirus pandemic, much of it will relate to the ways in which the world and our lives have changed. However, I hope to also share other sparklets of wisdom that come to us from these texts that I love so much, in hopes of sharing comfort and even the occasional distraction.

So now, for today’s Torah. Two of the classes that I teach are learning the third chapter of Moed Katan. While the chapter is theoretically about the laws of Chol Hamoed (the intermediate festival days of the holidays of Passover and Sukkot) and mourning, there is an extended narrative digression about the topic of excommunication. On page 17a, the rabbis take up the question of an Av Beit Din who has sinned grievously. The Av Beit Din is the head of the court, and therefore an important communal figurehead. If he sins intentionally, he risks undermining his role in the community, and even the community’s larger integrity. However, it is also dangerous to ostracize the head of the community, as that can also undermine communal structures. Rav Huna says:

באושא התקינו אב בית דין שסרח אין מנדין אותו אלא אומר לו (מלכים ב יד, י) הכבד ושב בביתך חזר וסרח מנדין אותו מפני חילול השם

In Usha it was enacted: If the Av Beit Din sinned, he is not ostracized. Rather, say to him: “Keep your honor and stay at home” (II Kings 14:10). If he sins again, he is ostracized, due to the desecration of God’s name.

Of course, the first part of the message here is clear for us: to keep your honor, stay home. For those of us who are privileged enough to be able to stay home, this is the most important thing for us to do in this moment. By staying home, we make it safer for those who have to go to work to be able to do so. That is how we show gratitude to our doctors, nurses, hospital staff, grocery workers, sanitation and transit workers, and others who keep our society running. The best way to show kindness to the people we love right now is by staying away from them, as counterintuitive as that feels.

However, there is something more happening here. The gemara here is not considering a random individual, this is the leader of the community. Therefore, punishing him is both more complicated and perhaps more important than punishing anyone else. His removal through ostracization will send shockwaves through the community, undermining its stability. At the same time, if he is not punished in some way, his example suggests that his transgressions are acceptable, and might be copied by laypeople. The gemara here suggests that quiet resignation—going home, stepping down from his leadership but doing so in a subtle way, changing his behavior—is the best case scenario, allowing the leader to maintain his dignity, the community to have a more fitting leader, and the message that such transgressions are unacceptable to spread. I wonder, though, what would happen if the Av Beit Din came forward and owned up to his transgressions. What if he got up in front of the community and said, “I was wrong. I sinned, and I did so knowingly and willingly. I put our community at risk with my poor decisions, and I’m sorry.” Perhaps he would still need to resign his position, but he would also open up a conversation about our actions and their consequences. This sort of humility is difficult, but right now, it is crucial.

Today, we have seen different models of leadership, both inside of the Jewish community and outside. Coronavirus spread uncontrollably in America and in the Jewish community due to willful ignorance on the part of some of our leaders, or due to a reluctance to make difficult choices and trade offs to keep our communities safe. It is difficult to decide that it is better to shut down schools, when it is clear that some children will go hungry, or be left at home alone because their parents are deemed essential workers. Shutting down the economy means millions of people losing their jobs, creating a new, huge vulnerable class of people, beyond those who have already been left behind. If you tell people they can’t go outside, you risk trapping people with abusive partners. And in the Jewish community, closing down shuls and minyanim mean that people lose the opportunity to connect with those around them at the moment when they might most need to be in community.

Some our leaders have consistently made the right choices, and we all owe them a debt of gratitude for their leadership and willingness to do what was right, even when it was impossibly difficult and often unpopular. Others, however, have consistently made the wrong choices, believing that they know better than the experts or that the virus won’t affect them. They are responsible for spilling blood, especially when they refuse to acknowledge their mistakes. It is not enough for them to simply go quietly into their homes. These leaders need to face a reckoning for the implications of those recommendations. But for those who made the wrong choices, and then took responsibility and changed their course—we have to make sure there is still a place for them among us, because we are all fallible. There will be a time to point fingers and see what went wrong, but right now, we need all hands on deck.

This is the moment where we are all setting an example—if not as the Av Beit Din, then as parents and children and friends and community members. As our worlds transfer online, we are more visible than ever, and so our power can increase, whether for good or for evil. We get to choose whether we want to sanctify God’s name through our actions, or to desecrate it. The gemara here gives us the answer. Keep your honor, and God’s honor. Stay home.

I’d love to hear your thoughts or responses, so please respond to this email to share those with me. I hope that those of you who are sick heal, those of you who are scared find comfort, and those of you who are lonely remember that we are with you in spirit, if not in body. Shabbat shalom.