Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The First Question

Talmud teaches that upon arriving at heaven’s gate, each of us will be asked a series of questions. Some Jews interpret this passage literally; others (myself included) read it metaphorically, as a kind of reflection on what it means to live an ethical life. Either way, the nature of the first query is instructive. Amidst the myriad possibilities—Did you believe in God? Did you attend synagogue regularly? Did you love your neighbor as yourself? Did you give generously to charity?—the opening question we are asked, according to the great sage, Rava, is both surprising and timely: Did you deal honestly in your interactions with others?

Alas, far too often, the answer seems to be no. Even a cursory glimpse at the headlines reveals a serious national scourge of dishonesty. After plunging our nation into a deep recession with their disreputable practices, banks and investment houses continue to feed their greed with lie after lie. BP callously obfuscates about the extent of the devastating oil slick smothering the Gulf of Mexico and their responsibility for it. Corrupt politicians, Ponzi schemes, and corporate and personal foul play have become so commonplace that a cynical public, sadly, practically considers such deception to be the norm.

This points to the wisdom of the Talmud’s teaching. Like the biblical prophets before him, Rava recognizes that no matter how ritually pious we may be, we fail the most basic test of faith when we lack integrity in our dealings with our fellow human beings. Religious life—and basic human civilization—is established on a foundation of accountability. And that accountability begins with each of us asking ourselves: Do I deal honestly with others?

During this late spring season, Jewish congregations around the world read from the book of Numbers, which opens with Moses taking a census of all the able-bodied men of military age in the Israelite camp. The final tally comes to 603,550—a highly significant figure, for it corresponds exactly with the 603,550 individual Hebrew letters contained in the Torah text. Thus, as Dr. Ron Wolfson points out, “The scroll of the Five Books of Moses that is read in the synagogue is handwritten by specially trained scribes. According to Jewish law, if even one letter of the 603,550 is missing, the entire scroll is considered unfit for use. Who is counting on you? Every one of us counts. And when we count, we can be counted on. Then we become a blessing.”

Another famous talmudic passages teaches: “In a place where no one is human, strive to be a human being.” Each and every one of us can begin to repair this world, so rife with dishonesty, simply by minding our own affairs with integrity. If enough of us swim against the tide, we can start to change the tide. At the very least, when our hour of reckoning comes—however and whenever it comes—it behooves us to be able to answer Rava’s question in the affirmative: “Yes, I did my best to interact honestly with my fellow men and women.”