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Space IL, Michael Cohen and Moral Licensing

Space IL's Beresheet Lunar Lander

Sermon on Shabbat Vayhakheil 5779

Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, Arizona

Last Shabbat treated us to a crazily changing meteorological twenty-four hours unlike any we typically have in Tucson. A week ago today we had a true winter’s mix of snow and rain, but mostly snow, on-and-off all day. The high was 38 degrees, and calls and texts asked if we were still having Shabbat services in such weather. Of course we had services, and installed our new Mezuzah and dedicated it and our beautiful new Mizrach as well, and attendance was surprisingly strong for an evening that began with snowflakes drifting down past our glass front doors.

Saturday dawned cold but brilliantly clear, ice on the ground but bright sun glinting off snow-capped peaks in every direction. Still, it was very brisk, and even when we finished morning Torah Study and services it was still just 40 degrees. But by the time we started our Shabbat afternoon ride and service on horseback at 2 pm it had warmed up to the mid-50s, gorgeous weather for riding through the newly refreshed landscape, a magnificent desert surrounded by shining white mountains. It was balmy by then, and warmed up even more Sunday, when temperatures reached the high 60s and the snow melt added its flow to the rain-swollen waterways, usually dry but now flowing freely.

Last Sunday afternoon I saw people canoeing on the Rillito River, three different boats out at the same time paddling along, which I never expected to see in this lifetime. And one guy was even out there fishing—I have no idea what fish he hoped to catch in a river that’s dry 330 days a year, but it was definitely picturesque. A wild ride, from winter snow to sunny thaw to balmy spring in three adventurous days.

That seesaw effect was an appropriate introduction to a weird week for the Jewish people. The last seven days gave us a close view of Jews ascending to great heights and mired in the lowest swamps. Which prompts us tonight to explore an important Jewish concept: kol Yisrael areivim zeh bazeh, every Jew is responsible for every other Jew.

That phrase is used throughout the Talmud and in other classic Jewish texts, and it means that even if we have never met them, even if we have no obvious connection to the triumphs and tragedies of other Jews anywhere in the world, we feel pride in their accomplishments and are troubled by, even shamed, by their failures. It’s this idea, kol Yisrael areivim zeh bazeh, that inspires us to save Jews who are endangered anywhere in the world, from Ethiopia to Argentina to Ukraine, and that insists that we approach the Jewish world with an understanding that we are all part of one large Jewish family, dysfunctional perhaps but still a family, Klal Yisrael.

There is something almost mystical about the sense we Jews have of responsibility for the acts of other Jews, actions which we neither have a hand in, nor benefit from directly at all. When a Jewish athlete wins an Olympic medal in skating or judo or swimming or sailing or gymnastics we all kvell a little, even if we don’t care about the sport she or he plays. When a Jew wins a Nobel Prize—which happens pretty often, well over 20% of all Nobel Prizes ever awarded have been given to Jews, although we represent much less than 1% of the world’s population—we celebrate, even if we don’t understand what he or she has won the Nobel Prize for doing.

Similarly, when a Jew is indicted or convicted for doing something rotten, like Bernie Madoff or, I suppose, Michael Cohen, we feel a sense of embarrassment and even shame, even though we had nothing to do with his crimes and did not benefit from them at all.

That sense of collective responsibility is nearly unique to Jews. Christians do not have quite the same connected feeling that we do about the danger to other Christians, or about the actions of other Christians. When Christians were being tortured and slaughtered in Iraq and Syria by ISIS there was an almost universal lack of urgency to the response by churches in the west. Muslims do not have the same universal sense of responsibility for the actions of other Muslims—witness the lack of an urgent response to the brutality of the Islamists who slaughtered other Muslims who were not as fanatical as they—nor do Hindus or Buddhists. No doubt all faithful people wish that their co-religionists reflected only credit on their own religious traditions. But they do not have the mystical sense that they belong to a people, an am, that we Jews do.

This week the new Israeli project, Breisheet, the Space IL lunar program that plans to land an Israeli spacecraft on the surface of the moon, went up into outer space, launched on a SpaceX rocket. It marked the very first Israeli-designed and built craft to go so high and so far, and linked tiny Israel with such space giants as America and Russia in its ability to soar beyond the stratosphere and seek to land on Luna. Jews all over the world felt a tinge of pride at that extraordinary accomplishment. Quite literally, Israel has never before soared so high, and we should shep naches, we should feel proud. There will be, we hope and believe, more highlights to celebrate this coming week—and beyond!

Of course we are proud of an Israeli space program that we had no hand in shaping. But, being Jewish, and therefore being a trifle on the critical side, we will focus tonight on the challenge posed to us by the challenging actions of Jews that embarrass us.

Last week we also saw Michael Cohen, former personal lawyer for Donald J. Trump for a decade before he was elected and during the first years of his presidency, testify before Congress about his views of Mr. Trump’s many failings and misdeeds and Cohen’s own complicity in them. During his testimony Michael Cohen spoke about his Holocaust survivor father, and his wife’s Jewish refugee father. Cohen’s Jewish identity was no secret before the hearing, nor before his own convictions for perjury and other crimes. No matter where you sit on the political fence, including straddling it, there was nothing edifying in hearing about the level of corruption, intimidation, lying, conniving and conning that he said routinely went on the White House and, prior to that, in the President’s campaign and business empire. There was definitely no pride in knowing a Jewish lawyer did so much of that dirty work for Mr. Trump. As Cohen said, he should have stopped being a blind follower, and at the least an accessory to such acts, much earlier.

Last week also saw Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu indicted for corruption in three separate cases in Israel. No matter whether you are a supporter or detractor of Prime Minister Netanyahu, you cannot feel good about the violations of conflict-of-interest rules that Netanyahu and his wife Sarah are accuses of having borken, or enjoyed the many reports of slippery behavior. And finally, the New England Patriots owner, Robert Kraft, who recently won the Genesis Prize, the so-called “Jewish Nobel Prize,” was arrested for soliciting prostitution in Florida in a sordid case. These are very prominent Jews, and we cannot help but feel, as the old Yiddish saying goes, a shondeh far de goyim, embarrassed before the other nations of the world.

This last week was a reminder that we represent am Yisrael, the people of Israel, in how we act and in what we accomplish. It is a great charge, and should be both a point of pride and a signal element influencing our own behavior. We hope and pray that our own lives give pride to the people of Israel, the Jewish people. And we hope and pray that those Jews who fail will recover their sense of direction and ethics, and again make us proud of them, and of being Jews. The question that comes up in these cases is what has caused these prominent people, in positions of rare influence, to go astray?

There is a teaching in Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Ancestors, that says, “mitzvah goreret mitzvah, aveirah goreret aveirah,” doing a good deed, a mitzvah, brings after it another mitzvah. Committing a sin brings with it another sin, an aveirah. That means, basically, that acting well will almost automatically encourage, even demand that we do other good acts and will make us better. On the other hand, acting badly will lead us to do even more bad acts, and will ultimately make us much worse. I have always thought this was a simple statement of fact: do a mitzvah, get in the habit of doing mitzvot, and you will become good. Do something wrong, an aveirah, and you will find yourself committing other aveirot as a habit. It’s a form of behavioral psychology. Act in a certain way and soon you find yourself becoming more like your actions.

Since Judaism always cares much more about what you do than about what you believe or think or say—action is the central aspect, not words or thoughts, lo hamidrash ha’ikkar elah hama’aseh, Pirkei Avot says also—that makes perfect sense. Do good deeds and you will become good. Do rotten things and you will become evil.

But what if that’s not how it actually works? What if there is another factor at play here? What if when you do something good you then feel that it’s OK to do something else that’s not so good? What if our minds work in a peculiar way that tells us that if we perform a mitzvah we can afterwards allow ourselves to perform an aveirah?

We see this in small, personal ways, of course; if we have just finished an intensive workout we feel much better about eating that piece of cake—with ice cream, and perhaps sprinkles and a cherry. When we have worked hard all day we are more likely to feel OK about leaving the dishes in the sink for our partner to wash.

Advertisers have long understood this: it’s why they convince us to spend money by telling us we are actually saving money. I got it for half-price, we tell ourselves, so I could actually buy two, even though I can’t afford it in the first place.

But this goes deeper than that. There is a concept in psychology and philosophy that is called moral licensing. It says that when someone—you, me, anyone—has done something truly virtuous it then gives them a kind of inner permission to do something lousy. Affirming a moral identity can lead people to feel licensed to act immorally; in other words, mitzvah gorreret aveirah, somehow doing a good deed can bring after it a sin.

This is not as counterintuitive as it may appear. If we perform good acts at work we may then give ourselves permission to be less than charitable in our personal lives. Studies prove that that if we have voted for a minority candidate we are actually more, not less, likely to express biased or prejudiced attitudes afterwards, because we have proven our lack of bias by our vote. According to research, people are more likely to cheat and steal after purchasing green products than conventional products. We feel good about saving the environment, so we feel empowered to steal.

It’s a fascinating, and troubling idea. When we feel we are personally good, we give ourselves permission to be, well, bad. I wonder if that’s exactly what happens to a man like, say, Robert Kraft, a major philanthropist to Jewish causes and to many other charities who just won a big prize for being good. What can allegedly engaging in a little allegedly victimless crime hurt?

But moral licensing actually goes even further: it extends to even thinking about being good without actually doing the act, or identifying yourself with a good cause without doing anything about it. You then feel that you are a good person, morally upstanding, and can give yourself permission to do something lousy. That is, if you think you are good then you treat yourself to the privilege of doing something bad. It is this aspect of moral licensing that has allowed so many truly awful things to be done in the name of what are theoretically good causes, from religion to politics to business to social organizations. We are doing good work for American society as a whole so we can discriminate against people who don’t look like us. We are saving souls, so we can forcibly convert, or kill, people who don’t believe as we do. We are protecting the only Jewish State in a hostile world so it’s OK if we trade political favors for better media coverage, or encourage influential rich people to give us expensive gifts. We are responsible for saving our organization or our profession or our nation so it’s acceptable to publicly lie or slander people who disagree with us, or who we suspect of not being as pure as ourselves.

I have seen this moral licensing in many people, of course—and in myself. So what is the corrective for this dangerous tendency that, apparently, we all seem to have to one degree or another?

I think it lies in the very beginning of our Torah portion this week. Vayakheil at ha’am, Moses is told: assemble the people. Bring them all together, this am Yisrael, this kehillah, this adat Yisrael, this congregation of people. Because if you bring them together I will dwell among them, be resident with them. That is, in order for us to do right in our lives, to live according to the will and word of God, to have God actually be present, we need to come together as a people. It turns out that we can’t actually accomplish it alone, because left to our own devices we, like all other people, will eventually give ourselves the permission to do some things we really shouldn’t do, which will estrange us from God.

That is, the answer to moral licensing is to be part of a community that cares about what each member actually does, and cares for each member of the community. I don’t mean in an intrusive, yentah-style way; I mean as a family member cares about what his or her relatives are doing.

Kol Yisrael Areivim zeh bazeh, each Jew is responsible for every other does not just mean that we care about what Jews in the news do. It means that we care about one another, and for one another, that we strive to help each other do acts that benefit the whole people of Israel. It means that we care enough, mystically or otherwise, to comfort one another, celebrate with one another, embrace one another’s dreams and goals—but also that we care enough to try to make each other proud.

When we do that as a congregation and community, we will make each other proud. And then mitzvah gorreret mitzvah, good brings more good, will prove to be correct, and our actions will provoke only good.

PS An excellent article on moral licensing is located here:,_Effron_&_Monin,_2010,_SPPC.pdf

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