Friday, December 2, 2011

Taking the Blame

There was an important news story that came out of Pakistan a few days ago….though most of us were probably too busy finishing off our turkey leftovers, and beginning our holiday gift shopping, to pay attention to it.

A week ago, American and NATO forces engaged in an operation against Taliban fighters around the infamous and amorphous border than runs between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In the process, 24 Pakistani soldiers were mistakenly killed.

Tensions between our country and Pakistan have been running high since we captured and killed Osama bin Laden in May….without the help of the Pakistanis – because of our concern that they might have been complicit in hiding him over these last few years.

The trouble is that we can’t just wash our hands of Pakistan.  They are an essential and strategic partner in the ongoing war against terror….particularly vis a vis the American military presence in Afghanistan. 

Which brings us back to the unfortunate loss of life that occurred in Pakistan seven days ago.

Washington has been abuzz about whether or not President Obama should publicly apologize to Pakistan for the apparent error.  As best as we can determine, the State Department is in favor of an apology, in the hopes that that would placate Pakistan, and ease the way for continued partnership in the region.

And the Defense Department has advised against such an apology, pending a thorough review of the incident that could take months, or even years, to complete. 

In the meantime, Secretary of State Clinton and Secretary of Defense Panetta have issued a joint statement expressing their “deepest condolences” to Pakistan on the loss.

The question is: is that enough?  Or does our president and commander in chief have the responsibility to take the blame, and publicly apologize on America’s behalf?

This is partially a partisan political question. 
But for me, there is also a relevant Jewish question on the table.  What is the inherent value of an apology?  And when should we be offering one?

The question arises, in part, from this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Vayeitzei.  The portion includes the saga of the complicated relationship between Jacob and his father-in-law Lavan.  After years and years of living together as an extended family, Jacob finally seeks to cut the cord…and settle down with his children on property that is separate from Lavan’s.  But Jacob’s departure isn’t a simple matter.  Lavan is concerned that Jacob’s departure is tied to some trickery…and he becomes paranoid that Jacob has stolen from him.  Lavan insists on inspecting all that Jacob has, to make sure that none of his stuff is hidden within.

Jacob is naturally insulted that is father-in-law so distrusts him.  He makes a speech in which he passionately reminds Lavan that time and again, he [Jacob] always "took responsibility" (Gen. 31: 39) for any of Lavan's property that was lost under his watch (particularly when he served as a shepherd of Lavan's animals).

The text is attempting to make a profound statement about ethics in general, and about the Jewish qualifications for leadership more specifically.  What happens under our watch is our responsibility.

Jacob is described as a respectable leader, and a praiseworthy individual, because he is someone who is willing to accept responsibility, and take the blame, when things happen.  Even if he did not want or choose for them to happen.  If they happened under his watch, then he knows that the responsibility rests with him.

Our commentators are quite interested in Jacob's use of the phrase I took the blame.  What does it mean in our tradition to accept responsibility for our actions?

Rashi, quoting the first century Torah translator and commentator Onkelos, offers one possible answer: "Onkelos [1st century] alternatively translates this phrase as ‘that which is lacking and missing’ as in ‘Not one person is missing from us.’  Whether something went missing by day or by night, ‘I [replaced that which was missing] by compensating for everything.’"  

According to Rashi, Jacob took responsibility – and we can do the same – by offering up some kind of compensation…something tangible to the party that we wronged.  Not in terms of replacement value – because sometimes the things we take from others are priceless – but because compensation is an act that signifies that we recognize that a loss has happened.  And that even though we can’t go back in time and change the past, we can offer up some sort of restitution that will allow for some healing to take place…so that we can begin to make whole that which had been ruptured in the relationship.

Perhaps it is premature for President Obama to apologize this week to the Pakistani people.  There’s nothing wrong with wanting to do an investigation to find out exactly what happened, as the Defense Department has suggested.  But if the investigation indicates that the United States military was liable, then…Jewishly-speaking…I would humbly encourage the President to apologize.  The words “I’m sorry” carry tremendous weight.  Especially when they come from the most powerful person in the world, those words carry a certain value…Thus an apology becomes compensation…..It’s not monetary.  But it is a gesture that would indicate to Pakistan and to the world that we made an unfortunate mistake, and that we are prepared to rectify it.  By taking responsibility for it.

These are all lessons that can be easily applied to our personal lives as well.  How often have we felt bad about something that we said or did to someone else, but failed to verbalize it?  Perhaps we were afraid that an apology would make us less powerful, or appear weak.  Or maybe we were just embarrassed.

Our tradition reminds us that feeling bad about something is not enough.  The Talmud notes that "thoughts of the heart – thoughts that have not been articulated out loud – are as if they do not exist" (Kiddushin 49b). 

Words matter.  Saying the words “I’m sorry” makes all the difference in the world.  Even when it not the easy or popular thing to do, our tradition is clear: we have to step up and lead, and be role models…just like our ancestor Jacob was…and take responsibility for our actions.   

May God grant all of us the strength and courage to do so…as we say…Shabbat Shalom.

1 comment:

  1. I am so glad this topic has been brought up and I particularly like the Talmud selection about thoughts, no matter how virtuous, apologetic, or compassionate, mean nothing if not articulated out loud and acted upon. I think people are extremely prideful and competitive by nature and always have a fear of being seen as weak or at fault. This is our greatest hurdle to overcome in making the right decision to apologize when we wrong other people. We see apologizing as a giving in, a public declaration of our weakness or defeat, and something to be ashamed of.
    The power of an apology is tremendous, we do not give the words "I'm Sorry" enough credit. I know that when it has been said to me, I rarely forget it and it has made a huge difference in the way I viewed the person who said it and how our relationship carried forward. I see it as a strength in your character to be humble enough to apologize when you are wrong, and it also shows your care and compassion for fixing what has been broken.
    In terms of the President making a public apology, I do not see it as a threat to our public image, I see it as a humble showing of regret and
    and affirmation that we take responsibility for our mistakes. It shows he is a leader worth looking up to. One who is strong enough to admit faults, courageous enough to take full responsibility for actions committed by his people, and remorseful in recognizing the loss incurred by the Pakistani people.