KI TISA 5772
I hope I’m not dating myself, but do you Remember Flip Wilson’s Geraldine Jones character and her famous line, “The devil made me do it?” The devil became the perfect patsy for those times when she didn’t want to take responsibility for her actions. You cheated on your taxes? The devil made you do it. You lied to your spouse? The devil made you do it. Or in Geraldine’s case, you bought a new dress that you really can’t afford? “The devil made me buy this dress. I didn’t want it. But he made me buy it!”And the audience would howl its approval. After all, what a great excuse: It’s not my fault!
Of course Geraldine didn’t invent it. The 1st recorded game of “Pass the Buck” goes all the way back to the 1st human beings—Adam and Eve. After they ate the forbidden fruit Gd says to Adam (Gen. 3:11-13): “Have you eaten from the tree from which I commanded you not to eat?”
His response: “The woman you gave me to be with, she gave me of the tree and I ate.”
And Eve defended herself saying: “The snake deceived me and I ate.”
In today’s Torah portion, Moses comes down from Mt. Sinai with the 10 Commandments in his hands—one of which is “Thou shalt not make any graven images before Me”—and he finds the Jewish people worshipping the Golden Calf that Aaron had made for them. Moses is shocked. How could this have happened? How could this people that only a few weeks before had stood at Sinai hearing Gd announce the 10 Commandments, now behave like this?
Moses asks Aaron (Ex. 32:21): “What did this people do to you that you have brought such a great sin upon them?” in other words, “How could you have done such a thing? You were the captain of the ship while I was away! How could you have permitted such a terrible thing to take place?”
What does Aaron say for himself? “Please don’t be mad at me, my master. You know the nature of this people—that they are evil.” In other words: “Don’t blame me. It’s their fault. They made me do it!” That’s Aaron’s excuse.
I used to think that Aaron was pretty smart. After all, Gd doesn’t make you the High Priest and put you in charge of the Mishkan and its worship service unless you’re a capable guy. But events in our day have taught me that Aaron was an amateur when it came to making up excuses. He’s certainly not in the same league with some of the captains of industry, and the captains in the corporate world, and the captains of cruise lines, that we have heard from recently.
My colleague, Rabbi Jack Reimer has come up with a long list of contemporary examples. Let share a few with you. Captain Francesco Schettino was the commander of the ill-fated cruise ship, the Costa Concordia. He took a cruise liner that cost around $450 million and ran it onto a rock. But that was not entirely his fault. 1st of all, he claims that his GPS was not working correctly. If that’s true, then we ought to blame whoever made the GPS, and not him. And then he says that he was having dinner in his cabin with a lovely young woman at the moment when the accident took place. If so, what did you expect? Did you expect him to excuse himself, and interrupt his dinner with this lovely young woman in order to go and see what had happened? If you want to blame anyone, you should blame this woman, and not him. It was her fault for being so charming.
And then he came up with the most unbelievable excuse of all. This is an excuse that I am sure that Aaron would never have thought of. Do you remember what he said when he was accused of getting into a lifeboat, and abandoning the ship instead of staying on board to help make sure that all the passengers got off safely? He said: “I didn’t jump off the ship. I was leaning over, and I happened to fall off the ship and land in a lifeboat.” How’s that for an excuse? Would Aaron have ever been capable of coming up with an alibi like that? I don’t think so.
Do you remember Dennis Kozlowski? He was the captain of Tyco International, and he liked Italian islands just as much as Captain Schettino did. And so he threw a $2 million party for his wife’s birthday on the island of Sardinia. $2 million is a fair amount of money to spend on a birthday party, and so you can understand that he had to take some of the money to pay for this party out of the assets of his company. The only mistake that he made was that he evidently forgot to ask the shareholders’ permission. But didn’t they want the CEO of their company to be happy? If the shareholders of the company never asked, then isn’t it really their fault?
Do you remember Captain Richard Fuld? He was the captain of Lehman Brothers, and he steered that company into a swampy lagoon of subprime debt. He, too, hit an uncharted rock. And it really wasn’t his fault. How was he to know that the government would bail out General Motors, Chrysler and AIG and not bail out Lehman Brothers as well? If there is any blame for what happened to Lehman Brothers, it belongs to the federal government.
And then there’s Captain John Thain—CEO of Merrill Lynch. He was a better captain than Captain Schettino by a long shot. He took care of his crew, if not his passengers. Just a few months before Merrill Lynch sank, he arranged for the executives at the firm to get $3.5 billion in bonuses. That’s what you call a devoted captain!
And then there’s Captain Tony Howard, who was in charge of British Petroleum at the time when the oil rig exploded, and sent millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 workers who were on board, and poisoning the waters of 6 states for generations to come. Mr. Howard cancelled his vacation plans, and went to visit the scene of the accident, and when the reporters asked him how he felt seeing all this death and destruction, he answered: “I hope that we can clean up this mess as quickly as possible so that I can get back to my life.” I am sure that the people who died in that tragic accident felt the same way.
And then there was Captain Daniel Mudd, the head of Fannie Mae and Captain Richard Syron, the head of Freddie Mac. They both overloaded their cargo hulls with junk mortgage bonds. They didn’t need to hit a rock. They sank of their own weight. Mudd and Syron expressed their sympathy over what had happened, and promised that they would look into the matter and—their words—not mine—“they would try to find out who was responsible.” Think about that. Here are 2 men who were in charge of these 2 agencies, and they were going to see if they could find out who was responsible for throwing the country into the biggest recession in 80 years. Don’t they hold any responsibility for what went wrong? Could you imagine Aaron appointing a committee to study the matter to report back on who was responsible for the sin of the Golden Calf?
One more: Captain Jon Corzine—former governor of NJ—was the head of MF Global. He’s one of my favorites. When he was asked at a Congressional hearing, where the $1.2 billion dollars was that seems to be missing from that company, he said that he had no idea. Perhaps he thought that it sunk somewhere in the Bermuda Triangle? All I know is that if I lost $1.2 billion dollars of the shule’s money, it would bother me. But Mr. Corzine just said that he would look into the matter, and if he found out who was responsible, he would let the Congress know.
Aaron was a wonderful High Priest who did his job at the altar faithfully every single day. He was a devoted brother and a good leader of his people. But he was an amateur in giving alibis—at least compared to the ones we have today. So I don’t think we should judge him too harshly.
I’d like to make 2 suggestions to all of these high powered executives—masters in the art of alibi-ing. I know that they don’t need my advice. They have the best lawyers in the country at their sides, but I’ll give it anyway. The 1st is that they ought to consider the example of Harry Truman who lived by the sign on his desk that read: “The buck stops here!”
The 2nd suggestion is that they go to shule on Yom Kippur and recite the Al Cheyt confessional which begins: “For the sin we have committed before You, b’ones uv’ratzon, under compulsion or by our own free will.” The Sages ask: If Gd forgives the sins that we commit under compulsion, why should we have to ask forgiveness for them? Good question.
The answer is that the 1st of all the sins—the one that leads to all the others—is claiming that it was b’ones—under compulsion. The 1st of the sins is saying that heredity made me do it or the environment made me do it or my wife made me do it or the devil made me do it—instead of saying: “I did it, I admit it and I’m sorry.”
This is my suggestion to Captain Schettino who claimed that he tripped and fell into a lifeboat instead of deserting his ship; and to Daniel Rudd, Richard Syron and Jon Corzine who said that they’ll make a study and report back on who is responsible for the loss of billions of dollars on their watch.
It just might lead them to own up and say: “I did it, and I’m sorry.” it might make them seem more acceptable in our eyes, and in Gd’s eyes. I know that we all, when confronted with the circumstances of life, will make up our own narrative making us out to be a good guy. That’s just human nature. However, I hope that we all learn to own up to what we do and to what we say. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis