If you haven’t seen the front page of a newspaper in the last couple of days, there was a big arrest yesterday in the state of New Jersey which included three mayors, two assemblymen, and five Orthodox rabbis. The charges were for public corruption and money laundering. I don’t know the details of the case, but from what’s come out so far, it doesn’t look too good for these guys.
This is not the first time we’ve seen Orthodox Jews involved in a scandal and I’m sure it (unfortunately) won’t be the last. It’s very disheartening to see any of our leaders involved in crime, but I think we feel particularly betrayed when leaders, who claim to be religious, succumb to corruption.
It seems more often than not, that the people who get caught up in these illicit affairs are the ones in positions of power. As a person who’s never had too much power myself (other than throwing around the occassional “who’s the boss in this house?” when the kidlets get unruly) while I can’t speak from personal experience, I can imagine how easily power could get to one’s head.
The Torah imagined it too, which is why the commandments regarding a king (the Biblical model of a powerful CEO or government leader) are rather strict. As it says in the book of Deuteronomy about a king:
“But he shall not have many horses… and he shall not have many wives and he shall not have very much gold and silver… and he shall write himself a copy of this Torah… and it shall be with him and he shall read in it all the days of his life… so that his heart shall not be high above his brothers…”
Since polygamy was banned in Judaism 1000 years ago, we can’t relate to the multiple wives thing exactly, but we’ve certainly seen leaders in the recent past get into trouble with extra-marrital affairs and prostitutes while in office. The Torah seems to be warning us that powerful people must be extra careful to keep their sexual desires in check.
In terms of a king of limiting his number of horses and his amount of gold and silver, we can easily replace those things with cars (and other material posessions) as well as money. The Torah appears to be telling us that power in addition to wealth and materalism is too hot to handle, so those in power should live more simple physical existences.
And if all those restrictions weren’t enough, the king is commanded to do one final thing. He has to personally write a Torah (a process which takes a year to do), schlep it around wherever he goes (those things are huge!), and read it every single day so that he remains humble and doesn’t let the power overtake him. These rules, in truth, do not apply to the leaders of today, but imagine how much less trouble they’d get into if they followed any part of them.
There’s one final point I’d like to make, which I think is the most important message to take away from a scandal such as this. While it’s very easy to look at fallen religious leaders and wonder “what’s the use of trying if even the role models fail?” I’d like to offer a different approach. Disappointment can cause us to throw in the towel or it can inspire us to work even harder.
According to Jewish phiolosphy, we Jews are judged by God individually and as a nation. What that means in practical terms is that we are a living, connected being, so if our left leg is broken, our right one has to get stronger to compensate. If our eyes go blind, then our ears have to listen more carefully. If a part of our community has lost its way, then those of us who are left to care must put in that much more effort to tip the scales in the other direction. I’m ashamed and disappointed like everyone else, but I also have more resolve than ever to live honestly, righteously, and create some positive press for our people. Who else is with me?