Doug Hodge, former CEO of Pacific Investment Management Company, was recently convicted and sentenced to prison for his role in the Varsity Blues Scandal. Following his conviction, Hodge wrote that he always prided himself on having a strong moral compass. How then did he slip into fraudulence?
There wasn’t one moment where I decided to abandon my principles, Rather, it was a series of small steps.Doug Hodge
A series of small steps.
There is a sadness in seeing how a person can reap their own downfall through a series of missteps. Here is a man who promoted ethical behavior in his business. Yet, something happened in his personal life. That should give us pause.
Who are we to say that we aren’t vulnerable to such a decline? As our rabbis teach us, “do not believe in yourself until the day of your death.” (Pirkei Avot)
Hodge’s remark raises two questions. First, is there something we can do that will guarantee we will walk on a pure path all our days?
Second, it is broadly recognized in our society that cheating is wrong. Plus, there is plenty of modern wisdom out there that can help people overcome temptation. Do we as Jews have something to offer to the conversation that is truly missing from the world?
An Awesome Moment
It is hard to think of a moment as awesome as Har Sinai. Has a people witnessed 10 declarations that so moved the needle for human ethics and morality? These 10 utterances were given to us with a clear vision about who we are as a people. HaShem brought us to Sinai and told us:
And now, if you hearken my voice and guard my covenant, you will be treasured to me from all nations…And you will be unto me a Kingdom of Kohanim and a holy nation.(Shemot 19, 5 – 6)
This is such a succinct mission statement. Then we get into the Decalogue itself. The ideas of the Decalogue are deep and powerful:
➢ Belief in G-d,
➢ Prohibition against murder & adultery
➢ The command to honor our parents and the Sabbath
➢ And more…
Each of these commands are far-reaching moral postulates. And they something beyond that as well…
According to Rav Saadia Gaon, all of the 613 Mitzvot are “included” in the Decalogue. In other words, each of the 10 commandments is a “super Mitzvah category” with many specific Mitzvot subsumed into it. Let’s look at two examples.
Ascend the Altar
“Do Not Murder” is a prohibition. It’s also a broad area of Torah that goes beyond the specific act. It’s the Jewish postulate that human life is sacred. Similarly, “Do Not Commit Adultery” introduces a broad scope of Mitzvot. The crux of it is that the human body is a sanctified vessel through which we learn to connect to our Creator.
After the Decalogue, the Jewish people begin to receive Mitzvot that are narrower in scope. Here are two verses that illustrate this concept:
And when you make for me an altar of stones, do not build them hewn, for you will have raised your sword over it and desecrated it. You shall not ascend my altar on steps, so that your nakedness will not be uncovered upon it.(Shemot 20)
What is happening in these verses? In the 10 Commandments, we first encounter the prohibitions of “Do Not Murder” and “Do Not Commit Adultery.” Now, the Torah tells us that we may not make the altar out of hewn stones.
Rashi explains that this command is related to the commandment “Do Not Murder.” While the altar is built to prolong human life, metal is associated with the sword, an instrument to shorten life. As we build an altar to make human life sacred, we eliminate any trace of metal which is associated with the sword.
On a similar note, the verse states that we may not ascend the altar on steps, but rather must use a ramp. Rashi understands this as a reminder of the modesty associated with “Do Not Commit Adultery.”
Walking up steps toward the altar is seen as a slightly less modest way for the Kohanim to walk. When they ascend steps, their nudity under their clothes would be more exposed. That would be a trace of immodesty in the vicinity of the altar.
This picture grows as we learn more Torah. The rabbis teach us that embarrassing a person is akin to murder. That’s why our tradition gives us concrete life steps that help us resist the tendency to embarrass someone or speak ill of them.
Likewise, the Torah tells us, “Do Not Commit Adultery.” Here too, our rabbis provide us with life parameters know as Yichud (seclusion). In this set of behaviors, we follow a path of recognizing our vulnerability and becoming more modest.
After the sweeping commands of Sinai, the big ideas take root in all of the particular Mitzvot.
Is There a Guarantee?
The Jewish people have a mission. We are a holy people and we bring G-d’s message into the world.
Our mission first takes root in the 10 great commandments. Each of the 10 commandments are broad and instructive of where our lives are going. Then, those big ideas get expressed even more in the organic life of Mitzvot, those small actions that fill our lives.
Does Judaism guarantee that we will be moral? Perhaps not…
But the Torah gives us a path with steps to walk in. As Doug Hodge said, a person doesn’t become corrupt overnight. It takes a series of steps to get anywhere in life. Likewise, the journey to Sinai is also a series of incremental steps.
Letters from Prison
A great thing about this journey is that it can work for anyone. Last week, I received a letter from a local prison inmate looking to connect with a rabbi. This letter took me back many years to a time that I was living in Jerusalem.
At that time, there was a Jewish prison inmate in central Georgia named Curtis. He was looking to make movement in his life, and somehow, he found me. I looked forward to receiving his handwritten notes. He once asked: How do you pray in a prison cell, if there is a toilet in the room?
While Curtis made mistakes early in life, he would send detailed questions related to Jewish monetary ethics. As I read his queries, I was inspired by his journey.
The Torah is our mission and it is our morality. Moreover, the Torah is a wholistic path of lifelong growth through the small steps it provides. The Torah—in its myriad of steps—is utterly unique. And it is sorely needed.
Join the Torah Journey…
However far you get, the destination is worth the trip.