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The Lakewood Scandal and the Real Shanda – Parshas Chukas

There are no shortage of Yiddish phrases that simply don’t translate into English. “Nachas” – Pride in one’s children? Joy in their success? No single word can capture ‘Nachas.’ No single word can capture “Chutzpah” and that’s why Chutzpah made it into the English language. In 1998 it was even used in a Supreme Court ruling! Another such word is “a shanda” – a Shanda is a disgrace, but much worse. It’s an embarrassing, shameful, disgrace.

This past week, I read with a heavy heart about a developing Shanda in nearby Lakewood, New Jersey. Fourteen Orthodox Jews were arrested on charges of public assistance fraud; millions of dollars stolen from the government through lies, lies, and more lies.

I hesitated before dedicating my sermon to this topic, as I imagine there are many here that did not know about this and I really hate being the bearer of such bad news. I decided to share this because within the laws of Lashon Hara we are told that it is okay and good to learn from those who have sinned. So let’s do that. Let’s internalize and let’s learn from these terrible sins and become better people in the process.

There is nothing that makes me feel sicker than mug shots of people who are clearly observant Jews. I am not going to get into whether they are observant or not observant because of their misdeeds. The bottom line is that someone wearing a kippah in mugshot hurts, it hurts a lot.

It hurts because it’s a Shanda. It is a disgrace, it is embarrassing, and it is shameful.

The Hebrew term we use for a sinful or shameful act done in the presence of others, especially non-Jews, is called a— Chillul Hashem a desecration of G-d’s Name. The opposite of a Chillul Hashem is a— Kiddush Hashem, bringing glory and holiness to G-d.

The concept of Kiddush and Chillul Hashem are found in this week’s Parsha and it really sheds a lot of light on what it’s really all about. We read today how Moshe and Aharon were told that they would not enter the land of Israel. The terrible news came on the heels of the infamous episode of the rock.

So what did Moshe do wrong? Why was G-d so harsh in his punishment?

Rashi famously explains that Moshe was instructed to speak to the rock and instead, he hit the rock. And it was for this infraction that he was punished. But there are many questions that are asked, is this such a big deal, to hit a rock and not to speak to one? If he was to speak to the rock why was he told to take his staff? Why was Aharon punished as well if it was Moshe who hit the rock?

There answers but I’d like to share with you the approach of Maimonides. The Rambam suggests a totally different reason as to why Moshe and Aharaon were punished. Nothing, he suggests, to do with the rock. Rather, right before Moshe hits the rock, he and Aharon turn to the people and say, Shimu na hamorim, listen you rebels! They yell at the Jewish People, they get angry at the Jewish People.

Says the Rambam, Moshe and Aharan were prophets, they were the most G-dly individuals known to the Jewish People. And therefore they were representatives of G-d. And so when Moshe and Aharon, G-d’s representatives, got mad at the Jews, the people assumed that G-d was mad at them as well. You see, Moshe and Aharon were not private citizens, they were ambassadors of G-d. This is why G-d tells them when he punishes them, “You did not make a Kiddush Hashem.” You did not represent me properly.

And maybe to the Jewish People, Moshe and Aharon were the ambassadors of G-d, but to the world at large, every single Jew is an ambassador of G-d. We are not private citizens. We cannot make decisions based on what’s good for us alone. Our decision making has to take into account what and Who we represent. And as Jews we represent G-d.

This point was brought home to me a few years ago in Washington, DC. I was filling up gas in a neighborhood that wasn’t too great and a panhandler came over to me and asked for some change. I said no. I don’t remember if I had money and I decided not to give it to him or if I really had no money but it doesn’t matter. I said no and I am confident that I said it with a polite smile and a compassionate look. This man looked at me and yelled out loud, “Is this what your Bible teaches you!” and stormed off.

And you know what, he was so right! All of my personal calculations, did I have money or not, is it appropriate to give money to someone who may very well use this money for who knows what, none of them included the fact that I represent G-d. I was an ambassador of G-d and I did not take that into account.

Now there’s a simple solution, right? Just take off your kippah! I had some friends in high school that used to do this. They would take off their kippah and then they could do whatever they want. If only it was that simple.

Another personal story – Many years ago, I went backpacking in Europe with a friend. It was March of 2004. This was right after the Madrid bombing, there were anti-Israel and anti-American protests in France, and a sense of unrest all over europe. My parents asked me to look as “non-Jewish possible,” whatever exactly that meant. So I went shopping, bought some new clothes. I tucked my tzitzis in, wore a baseball hat, and thought I was doing a pretty good job of not standing out.

One day, my friend and I toured the Coliseum in Rome. As part of the tour, there are these big hulky men dressed up as gladiators and you get to take a picture with them. And so we did. As we’re posing for the picture, one of the gladiators take his plastic sword, places it by my midsection and says, “Hey chabibi, ata rotzeh od brit milah?” Hey buddy, do you want another circumcision?

Okay so maybe I have a Jewish face, whatever that means. But in all seriousness, does anyone know what religion Warren Buffet practices? Some yes, some no. Does anyone in the world not know what religion Bernie Madoff is associated with?

Exactly! You could take off your kippah, you could dress however you’d like to dress, it doesn’t matter. We represent G-d. We are His ambassadors.

But here’s my issue with the whole notion of “It’s a Shanda” which I’m sure many of you grew up with. “Don’t do this or don’t do that because it’s a shanda fun de goyim, it looks bad in front of non-Jews.” Or maybe some of you grew up hearing that you shouldn’t do something because it’s a Chillul Hashem. Let me ask you this, if someone were to go back in time and give the following options to the dozen people from Lakewood who were arrested. Option 1 is that you don’t cheat, you don’t lie, and you will live your life, not only not wealthy, but poor. Option 2 is that you get involved in this financial scam, you make a million dollars, you will be arrested, a mugshot will be taken, and you will be let go the next day without any charges. Which one do you think they would choose?

I’d venture to say, maybe I’m right, maybe I’m wrong, but I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt, that most of them would choose to be poor over having the world see their faces, the faces of religious Jews plastered all over the news. So , if they were so sensitive to desecrating G-d’s name, if they were so sensitive, as I’m suggesting, to not creating a Shanda, why then did they steal, why did they cheat? The obvious answer is that they thought they wouldn’t get caught.

And that is the real Shanda!

You see, the Rambam taught us that the essence of a Kiddush Hashem or a Chillul Hashem is that we represent G-d. PERIOD. But instead of emphasizing the fact that G-d chose me and you and you and you to be His representatives, instead of emphasizing the fact that G-d believes in us, has enough faith in us to be His stand-in on earth, instead of emphasizing that G-d empowered us to the point that we have the ability to make His name either holy or profane. Instead, a parent tells a child, don’t cheat, don’t lie because the neighbors may see. Instead, a teacher tells her students, behave in public because people may see you.

But they miss the point entirely! We don’t do what’s wrong because we are holy! We don’t cheat on our taxes, whether someone catches us or not because it is wrong and we’re too good for that! We don’t break the law because we are good people!

The modern day notion of a Shanda or of a Chillul Hashem is entirely misplaced. What the Rambam is teaching us is that Chillul Hashem is not about what other people may say about us or think about the Jews. That’s so superficial! The idea is that we are chosen to be G-d’s ambassadors. That thought, that G-d has faith in us, that G-d trusts us, that he sees within us latent abilities and greatness, to the point that we are his designees on earth, thinking about that, really thinking about that, is a sure-fire way to ensure that we live a good, upstanding, and ethical life.

Had that been the message taught in Lakewood, I imagine the news may have read differently.

I don’t think I have to stand up here and say cheating the government is wrong and forbidden. I imagine that goes without saying. What I do want to emphasize is that if you are in this room, and even if you’re not, if you’re part of the Jewish People G-d has enough faith in your greatness to make you His ambassador on earth. It would serve us well to not only grow in our faith in G-d but to grow in our faith in ourselves. If we could appreciate who we are, not in the eyes of others, but in our own eyes, if we could see that greatness, I imagine the world would be a far better place.

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