Sunday, September 27, 2009

Gazalnu - Vidyuy Validation for Yom Kippur

Consider the following question:
We send our youngest son to an afternoon playgroup once a week. The woman running the playgroup charges for her services on a days per week basis; if your child attends three days a week, you pay so much a month. Ours attends once a week, so we pay one-third (approximately) of that amount. She does not take into account off-days; they're built into the price. We knew this going in and did not object.
Until now. Rena pointed out to me last night that it happens to be that this year, the one day we send Petachya to group - Sunday afternoon - happens to be the one day of the week that there's quite a large number of off-days. During the first two months of gan, a full half of the days are off. The way she has organized the pay structure, we're basically paying full price for half the days.
On one hand, that's the way she sets up the schedule - a fact that we knew in advance. It's our bad luck that it just happens to fall out this way and we only send our child one day a week; if we sent him full-time, paying for every other Sunday wouldn't be such a big deal. But when you're only paying for Sundays, paying twice as much for half the does seems excessive.
I mention this issue because your position on whether we should pay or not will quite likely depend on your perspective. If you're me - and I am - it seems unfair to expect me to pay so much just because "that's the system." On the other hand, I'm sure the gan leader reading this wouldn't agree. In issues of money, perspective plays a primary role. Which brings us to viduy.

Reciting viduy each year returns us to the familiar. Ashamnu - we are guilty; bagadnu- we have rebelled, etc. There's a certain comfort in the familiarity of the viduy. We recite the same mantra each year, offering our sorrow and remorse for yet another year of sinfulness. In following the laundry list of viduy that our sages laid out for us, we take a certain solace. Even though we say the words, we didn't really do everything on the list. Sure, we spoke lashon hara. That one applies to everyone. But some of them we say even though we don't really think that we did the deed during the past year. While the rabbis left many of them vague and unspecific enough to include many common behaviors (kizavnu - "we have rebelled". Can anyone claim "not" to have rebelled against God during the past year in some way?), one particular sin seems misplaced on our individual lists: gazalnu: we have stolen. In the year of Madoff and tax evasion and financial scandal, most of come away feeling that at least that's one sin we're not guilty of. I've done a lot of things during the past year; but at least I'm not a thief.
But if that's true, why do I keep saying gazalnu - "we have stolen"? Sure, it's in the text. But when I say it, do I think it's true or not? Unless you really have stolen, which truth be told, most of us have not, we don't really think it's true. We're not thieves, or at least we don't think we are. But if not, then why do we say it? Or better yet, why did the rabbis include it in such a universal prayer?
Truthfully, we might not be as innocent as we think. My line of thinking begins with a Mishnah in Baba Metzia. The second chapter of Baba Metzia deals primarily with the return and care of lost objects: what must I return, what can I keep, how long must I watch it, etc? How do I know that I'm returning the item to its rightful owner? The Mishnah (7) explains:
אמר את האבדה ולא אמר סימניה לא יתן לו והרמאי אף על פי שאמר סימניה לא יתן לו שנאמר (דברים כ"ב) עד דרוש אחיך אותו עד שתדרוש את אחיך אם רמאי הוא אם אינו רמאי
If the [claimer] mentioned the item but did not offer identifying characteristics, he may not give it to him. And the liar - even if he gives identifying characteristics, he should not give him the item, for it is written, "Until your brother seeks him out", [meaning that you should not return the item] until you investigate whether the [claimer] is or liar, or whether he is not a liar.
In order to return lost property, it's not enough to simply announce the item and return it to the claimer with the right information. I also have to look into his background: is he honest? Would he lie to claim an item that does not belong to him? Is he the kind of person who would dishonestly take free money? It seems like an awfully difficult task for a person simply trying to return a cell phone. But the gemara makes the task even more difficult. The gemara notes:
תנו רבנן: בראשונה כל מי שאבדה לו אבידה - היה נותן סימנין ונוטלה. משרבו הרמאין, התקינו שיהו אומרים לו: צא והבא עדים דלאו רמאי את, וטול.
The Rabbis taught: Originally, anyone who lost an item, would just offer the identifying marks and take it. When the liars multiplied, they instituted that they would say to him: go bring witnesses that you are not a liar, and take your item.
Apparently, claiming lost items was simply too easy for many people to pass up. Someone would announce that he had found a cellphone, and I guess it was easy enough for someone else to guess its identifying remarks that false claims for lost property became a common problem. So the rabbis, with this new institution, force us to assume that everyone is a thief and a liar. "You want your phone back? Sure. Just go get me witnesses that you're honest and upstanding and I'll be happy to give it to you." The Tur, in rather stark language, sharpens the Gemara's point by adding the following sentence (See Tur Choshen Mishpat 267) "Nowadays, we are all assumed to be liars."
Reading through these halachot bothered me greatly. It's one thing to ask people to identify their lost cellphone. But it's entirely another to assume that every person is inherently dishonest until he proves otherwise. But there it is, in black and white, codified into Jewish law. We're all assumed to be liars and thieves, ready to steal and cheat at a moment's notice, unless we have witnesses who can vouch for our character. How troubling.
I shared my feelings with a friend of mine, who suggested that it really boils down to a question of perspective. Most of us wouldn't walk into a friend's house and steal his television. (Who knows - maybe mine is better than yours anyway.) That's black and white. But claiming lost property wasn't black and white. It didn't require outright theft, but just a little dishonesty. It's easy to see someone thing to himself, the owner probably gave up on it, so why shouldn't I get it instead of someone else? What about our gray areas - and there are a lot of gray areas.
Were those hours billable hours, or were they just shmoozing hours? Is shmoozing an assumed part of office work, or is it just wasting company time? After that meeting do I go back to the office to finish the day, or just go home, because by the time I get back to the office, I'll never get anything done anyway? These simple questions come up daily in office and work life, and they rarely have good, clear answers. Often the answer depends on your perspective. And our perspective is never objective. It is our nature to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt.
Ask yourself this question then: What does it mean about us if, when asked about a monetary case (and we were an objective third party) we would give one answer; but if we were asking the question about our own finances, we would give a very different answer? What does that make us? Liars? Thieves? Maybe not that harsh - but at least somewhat dishonest, if not disingenuous.
Which is certainly enough to justify our viduy on Yom Kippur.