Friday, July 2, 2010

Parashat Pinhas - Between Zealotry and Integrity

integrity |inˈtegritē|nounthe quality of being honest and having strong moral principles; moral uprightness he is known to be a man of integrity.the state of being whole and undivided

The bridge between last week's parashahBalak and this week's Torah portion revolves around an individual named Pinhas ben Elazar.  Pinhas is deeply bothered by what he sees going on among the people and the subsequent deathly illness that sweeps through Bnai Yisrael.  His response, while extreme (running two people through with a spear), brings an end to the epidemic.  This short narrative comes at the end of Balak.  It is followed, in the beginning of this week's parashah, with the announcement that God gives a Covenant of Peace to Pinhas. The exact nature of the Brit Shalom is not clear nor is it made clear why God has to or chooses to grant such a Covenant to Pinhas.

The line between zealotry and integrity can clearly be a very fine one.  We see zealotry all the time today.  There seems to be less and less moderation in this world - polarization rules the day.  People stake out opinions and then engage in what is called a dialogue.  More often than not, however, what they are really engaged in is a shouting match where people talk or yell past one another.  They never truly encounter the other or really hear what they have to say.  We see this all the time, from the ridiculous (see Jerry Springer) to the halls of power and government.  

With polarization and zealotry so common place, acts of integrity are less apparent.  Yet, people act with integrity all the time.  They go out into the world to the poorest places on earth and try to bring aid out of a deep sense of tzedek and gemilut chesed.  Others leave companies where they work because illegal or morally questionable practices are out of sync with their sense of right.  A hero of mine closed his tzedakah fund because changes in the nature of the donors severely limited not the amounts that could be distributed but the manner in which those donations could be distributed.  What started as a micro-giving program that helped people immediately in need with small amounts was transforming into a bureaucratically heavy, process heavy fund that could not act  in a quick, direct way.  

What I find fascinating and sad is that sometimes when a person acts with integrity they are shunned, called out, and ostracized for having done the right thing.  The law is now designed to protect whistleblowers from retaliation by their companies or employees because too many times, people go after the one who shared information about corruption, bribery, scandal, or morally bankrupt practices.  They put her outside the circle.  They act in anger.  They seek to retaliate rather than looking inward.  It is always easier to be angry at another rather than looking inward, being reflective, taking personal responsibility.  It is precisely for this reason that whistleblower laws exist and, most likely on some level, that Pinhas needs a Brit Shalom from God as a form of protection from others.

Maimonides, in the Laws of Human Character Development, makes clear that it is a mitzvah to set someone on the right path if they are going in the wrong personal direction.  Even if one must repeat it over and over again, the obligation exists for the person of integrity to act with it and to try to help that person no matter what.  The impact of acting with integrity can be transformative if or when the person or the company or the organization is ready to hear the message.  Until then, the message deliverer is not exempt from trying to help, from trying to save, from trying to transform.

This weekend, we remember a small group of people who acted with the deepest integrity, to whom we owe a debt of gratitude for seeking out a new home, and declaring the principles of that home at the outset.  On July 4th, we remember and honor the creation of a country whose moral foundations are still sought out all around the world.  

Camp Ramah in Wisconsin is a place that helps further develop the individual integrity of our campers and staff members.  They learn that they can have principles and stick to them.  They have role models for such behavior in their peers and in the staff.  Over the first several weeks, I have been privileged to get to know many young people, campers and college students alike, who have incredible moral compasses, who know what they believe AND are willing and able to listen to others and to stick to their principles.  On Yom Sport, we will have the chance to see many campers act with integrity and have their principles challenges.  It is my hope that we create a place where integrity and courage are honored and while it may seem like an insignificant way to demonstrate it, good sportsmanship and fairness play a major role at camp.

It is a beautiful day here at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin.  The sun is shining gloriously, their are gentle waves on the lake, and many tefillot are taking place outside.  A million things will happen here today.  And it is a blessing that so many of them will happen with campers and staff members possessing great courage and integrity.  Our atmosphere is one that generates passion and intensity of opinion AND openness and respect for the other.  It is a place that honors integrity and tries to minimize zealotry.  

Shabbat Shalom.

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