Delivered on Kol Nidrei 5779
During my time in Rabbinical School I interned as a chaplain at NYU’s Tisch Hospital. One of my responsibilities was to serve the spiritual needs of the patients and their families in the pediatric rehab unit. Each morning, the attending physician invited me to attend rounds. Others in attendance included the physical therapists, the occupational therapists, the unit’s social worker, and the nurse manager. We discussed each patient and his or her progress in treatment. I was struck by the complexity and sophistication of the systems in place in order that all present at those rounds could do their part to bring about healing. The attending physician felt responsible for the patients. I am certain everyone else around the table did, as well. And each professional brought his or her expertise and integrity to the task at hand. The physician may have felt responsible, and he was far from alone in the task.
A physician needs others so that he or she can be accountable to the patient. When we take on a role, be it a doctor, an engineer, a civil servant, a teacher, a rabbi, what have you, we accept responsibility for our actions. When our skills become something upon which others rely, we become duty-bound to act with integrity. For each of us upon whom someone else’s safety and wellbeing rely, we are accountable to them. We are accountable to our families. We are accountable to our workmates and employees. We are accountable to community and to society.
Surgeon and writer Dr. Atul Gawande notes the importance of accountability in the world of health care. In his book The Checklist Manifesto, Dr. Gawande notes how incredible it is that in so many professions in which lives are at stake, individuals operate at a high level of success. Skyscrapers by in large do not fall because of negligence on the part of engineers. While I wish airlines would run on time more often, commercial pilots have a low level of catastrophic error. Doctors, more often than not, find ways to bring about healing. We operate with a high level of sophistication and complexity. In today’s hospital, doctors rely upon a complex network of nurses, therapists, nutritionists, social workers, and others to confront complex medical situations constantly. An architect uses a structural engineer to make sure that the home he is designing will stand. A pilot and co-pilot work together to run through the thousands of steps that it takes to get from departure to arrival. Many professional associations, the rabbinate included, have established ethics guidelines for their practitioners, and the organizations carry out protocols when someone violates the trust that others gave them. Checks and balances are good; they hold individuals accountable. When we live and work in a complex society, we are responsible for one another. Kol Yisrael aravim zeh lah zeh. Accountability is a good thing.
And accountability is biblical. In tomorrow’s Torah portion, we read, “Behold, I place before you life and goodness, death and evil, blessing and curse. Choose life so that you may long endure on the land.”
The biblical concept of accountability takes on new meaning in Medieval times. Maimonides, who was both a physician and a giant of Jewish law and thought, takes the words from tomorrow’s Torah portion as the central theme for our Jewish tradition. “D’var zeh ikar gadol hu,” he writes, “This is the big idea! This idea is the pillar to both our Torah and Tradition!” God places a key ability in human hands, the ability to choose. We choose to say yes or to say no, to do something right or to do wrong. In other words, a person has agency to act in his or her world. Cain had a choice before he killed his brother Abel. Rebecca and Jacob had a choice before they decided to fool Isaac, stealing the birthright away from Jacob’s brother Esau. Remember Akiva’s teaching from Rosh Hashanah, “Zeh klal gadol ba-Torah, this is the greatest teaching in our tradition.” Maimonides’ klal gadol, his central tenant for us, is this: Each person has the ability to choose to do the right thing. “The creator does not direct humanity or decree to them to do good or to do bad, eileh libam masur la hem, rather our hearts guide us.”
In ancient and medieval Jewish thought, the heart is the seat of wisdom and insight. We decide what to do when given a choice. One’s mind and conscience direct him.
Even with our God-given ability to choose how we behave, some things are outside of our control. We do not control others’ decisions. We cannot prevent hurricanes. We cannot un-diagnose cancer. Knowing that, embracing the responsibility to do right by ourselves and by our neighbors: How do we hold ourselves accountable for our actions?
A story: when I was nine years old, Barcelona hosted the Summer Olympics. I have always loved the summer games; the Olympics are magical. That particular summer, on a regular weekday afternoon, I had gone outside to play. I went into our family’s garage to grab my bicycle to go for a ride. As I rummaged around in the garage for my bike pump, I found a perfect piece of plastic, PVC piping laying around. Naturally, I thought, This is the best javelin I have ever seen. I took my newfound spear, and imagining myself the youngest Olympian to every walk onto the field; I grabbed that PVC pipe, closed the overhead aluminum garage door. I took the pipe and threw it down the driveway into the street. Running down to the road to grab the javelin a few more times, I had an idea. How silly it was to run into the street. I needed a backstop. I turned around and saw it—the garage door. I took up my javelin, which had developed a chip at its end, making it even more javelin-like. I took aim at my new backstop, pulled my arm back, and with all my might, I threw the pipe forward. It shot out of my hand, making contact with the garage door, it pierced the door, and flew straight through it!
I heard it land on the floor of the garage, and what remained was a perfect, two-inch in diameter, round hole, right in the middle of the garage door.
“Uh-oh,” I thought, “my parents will be so mad.” Guilt and anxiety took the helm. I ran into the house to watch cartoons, praying my parents would not notice what I had done.
“For transgressions against God, the Day of Atonement atones,” we read in the Machzor, “But for transgressions between one person and another, the Day of Atonement does not atone until one has asked for forgiveness from the other.”
My father came home from work a little while later. He sat me down and asked how there happened to be a round, 2-inch in diameter hole in the middle of the garage door. “You see, there were these weird termites who showed up who liked aluminum,” I started. My father stifled a laugh. I got in trouble not for ruining the garage door, but for lying. He told me that he was disappointed not because I did something silly, but because I did not take ownership of it. My father placed a choice before me: tell the truth or tell a lie. I had failed to hold myself accountable.
My father had the garage door replaced. The consequences for my lie: Once workers installed the new garage-door, my father appointed me the official painter. Nine years old and up on a ladder, I was a regular Tom Sawyer, painting the whole thing myself. Lesson learned. It was a constructive way to fix what I had broken, and to take ownership for an aspect of my family’s home.
We are called to be accountable for our actions. We are to take ownership of what we do. Moreover, that is a lesson that carries through each decision we make in our lives. Sometimes we will hit the mark. Sometimes we will miss it. And when we transgress ourselves or others, how do we hold ourselves accountable for our actions?
Author Cris Beam asked this question in an opinion piece published this past June in the New York Times. A few months prior, Beam traveled to Wisconsin where her ex-wife lives. They were married for 14 years. In 2006, Beam’s then-wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. “I was beside her through her surgery and chemo appointments, but I was terrified. At the end of her chemo, when she was still very sick, I ran.” Beam began an affair, eventually marrying the other person. The author’s ex-wife also moved forward in her life, remarrying and starting a family.
To find healing even years later, Beam and her ex-wife reconnected, “In a recent phone conversation, she told me that she never really had the chance to sit me down and tell me how the pain I caused her felt. A key part of an apology, perhaps, is listening to the victim’s experience, taking that in deeply.” If we are going to apologize, if we are going to hold ourselves accountable for past behaviors, to take ownership for our actions, to go through a process of repair for others and ourselves, we are called then to genuinely listen to the person we wronged.
Beam traveled to Wisconsin to have that hard conversation. Her ex-wife told her about the sadness she felt—“almost unthinkably sad”. Her wife knew the marriage was broken, but the manner in which their relationship ended brought about tremendous sadness. Beam’s ex-wife forgave, Beam felt forgiven, and the pain and sadness softened. This was Teshuvah.
We call Yom Kippur many things: literally, the Day of Atonement. The holiday is also known as Yom HaDin, the Day of Judgment. I would also call it the Day of Accountability. After all, each of us constantly makes choices, sometimes we chose correctly, and other times not.
But consider the complexity with which we live, as well as the responsibilities we hold for one another. In our professional and our personal lives, we maintain complex relationships. We work in complex environments. We live in complex communities. Our society operates at a high level of complexity. The intricacies of our lives demand excellence and integrity from each of us. The complexity of our lives requires accountability.
Yom Kippur, our Day of Accountability, requires us to approach ourselves and others with a dose of integrity and humility. Yom Kippur operates on both the spiritual and practical planes: if we take the internal work seriously today and tomorrow, we have the chance to set things right, to heal.
Because in 5778, we have all sinned. We have all transgressed. We told lies that had little consequence. We did things we regret. We violated the trust of those whom we love. We gossiped. We were not good friends. We violated our responsibility to our planet. We turned a blind eye to those less fortunate than ourselves. A misstep that has become pronounced this year: with the disclosure of another #MeToo incident, rather than believe the brave individuals who came forward, we instead replied about the perpetrator, “No, it can’t be… Him too?” We went about our lives as if everything was normal when things are far from ordinary. We gave into compassion fatigue. We failed to advocate for ourselves and for others. We failed to show up. We have failed to take responsibility for our actions and behaviors. We have violated trust, which draws us farther and farther away from the promises of this day: the promises of life, goodness, and blessing.
For the sin we have committed against one another, let us hold ourselves accountable to one another. For the sin we committed that affects us on a communal level, let us hold ourselves accountable. For the sin we committed against our planet, let us hold ourselves accountable. For the sin we have committed against ourselves, let us find forgiveness.
May we each walk through this Yom Kippur together carrying the full weight of our responsibilities to one another. May we each do what we need to recover, to forgive, to heal, to be accountable to ourselves and others, to make full Teshuvah, so that as the gates close at sundown tomorrow, we might be able to say: This coming year, I will continue to do the best I can, making the best choices at my disposal. I am responsible for my life. I am accountable for my life. “Zeh ikar gadol hu, this is the essential idea,” and upon it, all else rests.