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Holding Ourselves & Others Accountable

Delivered on January 6, 2017, Parashat Vayigash.

Let’s talk about accountability.

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash, we have the moment of reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers. A few weeks back, we read how Joseph went looking for his brothers who were shepherding their family’s flock. When his brothers see him coming, they conspire to throw him into a pit. Rather than let him die there, they sell him off into slavery. Whereupon, through his servitude, Joseph makes his way to Egypt, into the favor of Pharaoh, and eventually grows in power, becoming second in command, next to the Egyptian ruler, himself. When famine strikes, Joseph’s brothers find their way to Egypt. They come before Joseph, asking for relief from the famine.

The brothers do not recognize Joseph, but he recognizes them. While he keeps his identity concealed, he also says that the only way that he will give them relief is if he gives their brother Benjamin into the hands of the Egyptians.

Well, Joseph’s brother Judah cannot tolerate this. Approaching Joseph, he now makes a surprising offer. “Please, let [me] remain as a slave to my lord instead of [Benjamin],” he says, “and let [Benjamin] go back with his brothers” to their father’s house. Here, Judah acts accountably. As Nahum Sarna comments, “The one who had been responsible for the sale of Joseph into slavery now… offers to become the slave of his own victim! The story has come full circle.”

Joseph cannot contain his emotions. He throws others out of the room, and looking at his brothers, he says “Ani Yoseph, I am Joseph, your brother,” whereupon our biblical ancestors begin their process of reconciliation.

In this powerful moment, siblings reconcile after having profoundly harmed one another. Judah’s surprising act of accountability draws Joseph out of his own hiding, bringing the brothers closer together again, bringing healing to their family.

Because of accountability, Israel’s children can come together again. This is one of those good moments in our biblical text. We have resolution. Though, in reality, we do not always find resolution. We struggle with holding one another accountable; we struggle with holding ourselves accountable.

The rabbis of Mishnaic times struggled with the concept of accountability.

Let’s play a game. It’s called Forbidden or Allowable?

Here’s the scenario, as described in our Mishnah (Avodah Zarah 5:1): A non-Jewish winemaker goes to a Jewish worker seeking to hire him to help make a particular type of wine called yayin nesech. This is not a fine kosher cabernet. Yayin nesech is wine used only in idolatrous religious services. It is the wine used in Hellenistic pagan ritual. The question is this: Can the Jewish person go to work for the non-Jewish winemaker? Our Mishnah says no.

Consider an alternative: That same non-Jewish winemaker hires a Jewish worker to do all sorts of other work for him, and in the course of the day says to him, “That vat of wine over there, can you please move it for me from that spot to another?” Our Jewish worker has not been hired to work with the yayin nesech, but is now being asked to handle it in the course of the day. Can our Jewish worker help out with this? Our Mishnah says, yes. Allowed.

We love loopholes. It is absolutely forbidden for a Jewish person to handle yayin nesech; it is as if you were handling a statue of a Greek god. Yet, if you were hired under the auspices of other work, that person has not led you to do something idolatrous because you are helping him with something else. A beautiful loophole. In this way, our tradition allows us to dodge accountability. The Jewish worker is not accountable for what really is, plain and simple, inappropriate behavior.

The Mishnah that discusses this matter takes the matter one step farther: Say the winemaker wants to hire a Jewish donkey driver to move cases of his yayin nesech. Again, not allowed. But, if the donkey driver was hired to move all sorts of stuff, and the winemaker happens to load a certain amount of the yayin nesech along with the other things, then it is permitted for the Jewish donkey driver to work with the winemaker.

The implications of these rulings are troubling. Our sages allow us to wiggle our way through loopholes, and the implications of this are significant. Consider a contemporary retelling of the scenario. A person owns and operates a car-rental company, an sort of upgrade from the donkey rental companies of antiquity. Someone comes to rent a car. When the agent asks, “What’s the purpose of your trip? Business or pleasure?” the fellow responds, “I’m off to go rob a bank. This is going to be my get-away-car.” Knowing that he will be complicit in the robbery, the car rental company cannot in good faith rent to this person. But according to the Mishnah’s logic, if the person said, “I’m going to go visit my grandmother and run some errands,” and in the course of the day he also robs a bank, then they are not complicit in the crime.

The extreme example begs a point: loopholes enable us to avoid accountability. We are uncomfortable with accountability, and we are uncomfortable in our collusion with others’ misdeeds. Some may feel pangs of discomfort when we encounter another not doing the right thing. My grandmother used to snack on a bag of grapes while wandering through the grocery store. They were sold by the pound. Did she ever pay full-freight for those grapes? The discomfort is also there when we encounter injustice in our society. What is our own accountability for acts of hate or aggression that we encounter? There are other more nefarious scenarios we could use to highlight our discomfort with accountability. Suffice it to say, our rabbinic tradition in this instance maintains moral ambiguity. Our tradition invites us to find our way through loopholes rather than living a life of accountability.

Personal accountability is always a topic this time of year. Being in the first week of the secular new year, how are we doing on our new year’s resolutions? Many use this time of year to work at changing patterns in our lives. Gym memberships spike, organic food flies off the shelf, attendance at services soars to new heights! The new year is going to be about health, we say. This new year, I’m going to read 24 books. This new year, I’m going to call my mother more often. This year, I’m going to brush my teeth. Whatever the case may be, we use this time of year to jumpstart better habits. And what happens? We create loopholes, which with each moment, take us farther and farther from our good intentions. “Mitzvah goreret mitzvah, avirah goreret aveirah, one mitzvah drags us into another, while each transgression leads us to another.”

In her book, Better than Before, author Gretchen Rubin talks about the power of habit formation, and the primary tool we use to undo good habits—loopholes. She writes, “When we try to form and keep habits, we often search for loopholes, for justifications that will excuse us from keeping this particular habit in this particular situation.”

Rubin outlines ten particular loopholes that we use to justify poor behavior. There is the the False Choice Loophole: “I can’t go to the gym today, I have to work!” The Tomorrow Loophole: Standing over the sink, holding a spoon and a carton of ice cream, “I promise I’m starting my diet tomorrow.” The One-Coin Loophole: “I can skip one day of running! What difference does it make?”

We use these loopholes to avoid holding ourselves accountable, and to make excuses to our loved ones. When Judah comes before Joseph, I wonder if he actually, secretly recognized his brother, and by offering himself into Joseph’s service, he is saying, “Yes. Hold me accountable for all that happened to you over the years, brother. Yes. I was the one who suggested we sell you into slavery. And now, I will serve you, if that is the right thing to do.” Judah’s act of accountability transforms the dialogue, enabling Israel’s sons to find wholeness and peace.

It is difficult to hold ourselves and others accountable for our actions. From everyday habits to large ethical decisions, we often look for the path of least resistance. Benjamin Franklin wrote, “So convenient a thing is it to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.” Gretchen Rubin points out, “We can almost always find a reason, a loophole, that excuses us from following a habit. But when we spot the loophole, we can perhaps reject the desire to let ourselves off the hook.”

Accountability matters. Holding ourselves accountable, holding others accountable, opens the door to being better versions of ourselves. Accountability is a constant, small act of righteous living that enables us to leave our world a touch more whole than it was the day before.

For what and to whom do we need to hold ourselves accountable?


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