Monday, January 6, 2014

The Double Tragedy of the Murder of Max/Menachem Stark

If it had been the plot of a movie, the ADL would have coordinated demonstrations outside the movie studio: A Chassid slumlord, beloved and cherished inside his community, reviled by the business associates he has cheated and stolen from. Except, tragically, the story is true, sad on so many levels: for his family, of course, robbed of their father and husband; for a community dependent on his many acts of kindness. But it's also tragic in larger way, as the publicity this case has generated serves as a massive chillul Hashem.
Rambam, (Laws of Teshuvah Chapter 1) defines the desecration of God's name as the worst form of sin. How does one achieve atonement for this type of sin? He explains,

אבל המחלל את השם--אף על פי שעשה תשובה והגיע יום הכיפורים והוא עומד בתשובתו ובאו עליו ייסורין, אינו מתכפר לו כפרה גמורה עד שימות, אלא תשובה ויום הכיפורים וייסורין שלושתן תולין ומיתה מכפרת...
One  who desecrates the Name [of God] - even though he repented and Yom Kippur arrived and he maintained his repentance and he endured suffering, he does not achieve complete atonement until he dies. Rather, his repentance and Yom Kippur and his suffering are suspended, and [only] death atones...
This, of course, only applies to Chillul Hashem that one caused during one's life. How then can one possibly atone for Chillul Hashem, if the vast majority of that desecration comes after you're no longer in this world? While we cannot know the answer to these questions, the very thought of them causes me to shudder.
Yet now, thanks to the New York Post, the Jewish community will probably not ask the most important question in this triple-tragedy: How is it that supposedly righteous people see such a clear dichotomy between their personal and religious lives, and their business affairs? Menachem Stark was a beloved ba'al chessed. Max Stark was a despicable slumlord. Sure, we all wear the mask of the stranger to some degree. But the point of Judaism must be to unify and solidify ourselves into a greater whole - into people of personal, spiritual and religious integrity.
This isn't just about Menachem/Max Stark. It's a question about ourselves.
Numerous Jewish sources highlight the critical importance of integrity in religious life. Each morning at the very beginning of Shacharit we pray, "לעולם יהא אדם ירא שמים בסתר ובגלוי" - "a person should fear heaven both in private and in the open." The Pri Chadash writes that the phrase means that we must fear God in private in the same way that we fear God in public. He suggests that the original source of this phrase is a story found in the Gemara in Brachot (28) which describes of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, lying on his deathbed, surrounded by his students.
אמרו לו: רבינו, ברכנו!
אמר להם: יהי רצון שתהא מורא שמים עליכם כמורא בשר ודם.
אמרו לו תלמידיו: עד כאן?
אמר להם: ולואי! תדעו: כשאדם עובר עבירה אומר "שלא יראני אדם"
They said, "Our Master - bless us!"
He said to them, "May it bill the will [of God] that the fear of heaven should be upon you like the fear of flesh and blood.
His students said, "That's all?"
He told them: "You should achieve that much! Know that when a person sins, he says [to himself], 'that no one else should see me'".
Judaism demands not just prayer and study and righteousness in the religious sphere, but spirituality especially in the world outside the shul and Beit Midrash.

The same section of the Gemara also tells the story of Rabban Gamliel and the test he gave in order to gain access to his Beit Midrash. Anyone who was not תוכו כברו - "whose inside was the same as his outside" - was not permitted to study. Ultimately, when Rabban Gamliel was demoted, they opened up the study hall to anyone who wished to enter, and literally hundreds of students entered to study.
Yet, we seem to have forgotten Rabban Gamliel's essential message. He wasn't interested in teaching externally pious Jews. If you wanted to study with Rabban Gamliel, he wanted to know that you would internalize the Torah you studied and assimilate into your very essence; that you would personify the Torah in your behavior outside the study hall, and not just wear it on your sleeve (or hat).
Every one of us lives this dual life to some degree. We are not, during the rest of the year, the pious people we are on Yom Kippur. And I hope that we act in shul and in the Beit Midrash better than we do on the street.
But I hope that it's not that much better. I pray that we don't so disnegage our religious and personal lives that we're Menachem Stark in shul, and Max Stark at the office.
Yet, with the focus of the Jewish world now firmly zoomed in on the NY Post and its hateful cover, it seems likes that this issue will surely be lost, making it all the more tragic.

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