My Jewish Standard Dear Rabbi Column for February 2015 - Boundaries and Apologies, and Brian Williams is not Jewish

One trending apology has been in the news this week. Brian Williams said he was sorry for exaggerating events about his life, making himself sound more heroic than he really was.

Let me reflect on this. On the one hand, accuracy is a professional need for the integrity of all reporters. On the other hand, this is not a question about his news reporting. He seems to have bragged about his own life, and not bungled any of his news reports. His professional integrity remains intact, though his personal integrity is now in question.

Brian needs to take a vow of impeccable integrity, a concept that I suggest in another context in my column of this week in the Jewish Standard, see the second question below.

For those who want to know, Brian Williams is not Jewish. Wikipedia tells us that, "Born in Elmira, New York, Williams was reared in a well-to-do Irish Catholic home." Here is a video clip about Brian's apology and its aftermath.

Dear Rabbi,

We erected an eruv around our community to permit people to carry outside of their houses on Shabbat. It’s a wire that surrounds our area, a hardly visible enclosure. Based on that construction, I do go outside on Shabbat carrying my keys and other items. One time on Shabbat I inadvertently carried outside the eruv. Later, when I realized what I had done, I felt that there really was no difference at all when I carried outside of the boundary. I wonder now how is this eruv practice being meaningful? Please help me sort this out.

Bordered in Bergenfield

Dear Bordered,

It seems from your question that you observe Shabbat with all of its Orthodox requirements and restrictions. So you do know that it is forbidden to do acts classified as work by the rabbis. Carrying from one domain to another is one of their main classes of work. The majority of the categories of Shabbat-work relate to the sequences of cultural processes that a person would engage in to prepare foods or to make clothing. We refrain from those types of actions on the holy day of rest.

Transporting an object from one domain to another is more of a stand-alone taboo, not in one of the two clusters of work actions, preparation of food or clothing. And now you ask how you can find some meaning in this taboo. You can shlep heavy items all around your house and private yard but you cannot carry a little key outside of your home unless there is an eruv. It’s a good question.

Let’s step back for a moment and consider an imperfect analogy: football. We know that the sport has rules and boundaries. All the play must take place on the field. If a runner with the ball steps out of bounds, the play is ruled dead and action stops.

The field of play for Shabbat is the home. A participant can carry inside a house and yard but not transport something across the out-of-bounds line. A rabbinically sanctioned eruv cleverly extends a private yard to the larger encircled community. That makes the boundaries for carrying much wider.

You are correct in your feeling. Carrying outside an eruv is not a different physical action from carrying inside it. But you also must know that if you are going to play the game, you need to observe the rules. In football a receiver who steps out of bounds knows he has crossed a boundary and knows what the rules say about that.

Let me be clear, though. By offering this analogy I do not want to imply that Shabbat is a game like football. I offer the comparison to provide you with a rationale for finding some more familiar meaning in the highly abstract Shabbat boundary rule. I hope that it helps.

Dear Rabbi,

A number of years ago I made a mistake at my job. I was accused of being unprofessional and I was dismissed by my employer. In my line of work, news gets around. So when I went on an interview for a job recently, the first question I was asked was how I explain what happened when I got fired earlier in my career. Apparently, the explanation I offered was not effective. The outcome of that recent encounter was that I did not get the new job. I need to know — in such a circumstance in the future, what should I do?

Fired in Fair Lawn

Dear Fired,

Though you don’t spell out the details, you still raise a thorny question. In the age of the Internet, we must assume that all of the good and bad news about us gets around.

Even in antiquity, stories of bad behavior were told widely. Our Bible and Talmud are full of stories of people making “mistakes” — of sinning or of acting improperly. It’s part of the life of every community, and yes, of every individual.

To provoke the response of termination, your mistake must have been a serious violation of a professional norm or of some crucial dictates of your profession.

We Jews ought to be good at repairing our mistakes. If you say the daily prayers you know that we ask God to forgive our sins three times a day. And every year between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we get to go through a period of teshuvah, serious repentance. We get to regret our missteps, we get to resolve not to repeat them, and we beg God to have compassion on us and to forgive us for our transgressions.

Unfortunately, your future employers may not know if you repented your errant ways in prayers or in the synagogue and were forgiven by God. Accordingly, in your next interview you will need to give to your potential manager a credible non-theological narrative of the actions you took to correct your mistakes.

There is no magic formula that I can reveal to you to enable you to do this convincingly in a job discussion. Even so, it is fair though to assume that before they hire you, most employers will want to know several key facts about how you view your own past acts and how you will act in the present and the future.

First, they will want to know if now you are more aware of the gravity of what you did in the past to provoke your firing. If you have done your own serious soul-searching in the aftermath of that episode, you should tell the new potential bosses just that. You get it. You were wrong.

Second, you will benefit by being explicit about owning up to your mistakes. Just saying that you “own” your behavior, you accept that you did wrong, you understand what you did was improper, and you regret it, are quite powerful pronouncements, especially in the context of an interview. And even though your past wrong act had no impact on your new employer, saying to him that you apologize for your past error has a powerful impact.

I realize that saying you are sorry is not easy. But sociological studies show that people will forgive all kinds of transgressions if there’s an apology. Victims of a crime will forgive a perpetrator who is sorry. The public will forgive transgressions of politicians or celebrities, if they apologize openly and repent.

And third, and most important, you need to be convinced yourself, and to be convincing to others, that you have taken a vow of impeccable professional integrity. You cannot be too clear about this. You will be well-served by saying outright that in all of the contexts of your employment, you have resolved never again to veer from the center of the path of propriety.

You can’t just say the words. You have to mean them. If you are sincere about these matters, you will sound sincere to your potential employers. If not, your representations will sound hollow.

Authentic teshuvah can be a powerful healing part of your life. So do it, and good luck. Although next time you may or may not get the job, if you narrate the details of your positive transformation to your potential employer, you will know with confidence that you made a strong effort at projecting to others the growth of character that you have achieved.

Tzvee Zahavy earned his Ph.D. from Brown University and rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. He is the author of many books, including these Kindle Edition books available at Amazon.com: “The Book of Jewish Prayers in English,” “Rashi: The Greatest Exegete,” “God’s Favorite Prayers,” and “Dear Rabbi” — which includes his past columns from the Jewish Standard and other essays.

1 comment:

Tzivia in AliyahLand said...

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