Don’t Let Clay Feet Stop You
If you followed Michael Cohen’s testimony last week or saw the movie “Vice”, it’s easy to fall into cynicism. Trust in our government officials and in the belief that our government is working for our best interests has waned since the sixties. Confidence and trust in our religious leaders has declined as well.
In case you’re thinking that these sentiments are recent developments, this past Shabbat’s Haftorah reading let us know that we’re not experiencing new phenomena. Nonetheless, there may be a positive lesson here.
This past Shabbat, known as Shabbat Shekalim for its special Torah and Haftorah readings, reminds us of the Half Shekel coins everyone was obligated to donate to the Temple annually, around this time of year. The money would be for the purchase of the daily offerings and maintenance of the building.
In our Haftorah, the Temple constructed by Solomon is a few hundred years old and is in need of some renovations and upkeep. King Jehoash tells the Priests: (Kings II 12:5-6) “All the donations brought to the house of the Lord, the money which each man brings wholeheartedly to the house of the Lord, the priests shall take from the donations and they shall fix the damages of the house.”
You would think, the Kohanim, the Priestly class of our people, are a Holy group; they surely would devote some of the Temple’s income towards the upkeep of God’s abode. But they wouldn’t do it. Sixteen years after the royal edict, they did nothing to improve the building. “And it was that in the twenty-third year of King Jehoash, the priests still had not fixed the damages of the house. And King Jehoash summoned Jehoiada the priest and the priests and said to them, “Why are you not repairing the damages of the house? Now, take no money from your supporters for yourselves, but give it towards the repair of the House!” (Kings II 12:7-8)
You might think that an ultimatum from the King would finally start motivating the Priests to fix the Temple. But like rebellious children, they swiftly ignored his plea: “And the priests agreed not to take money from the people and did not repair the damages to the House.” (Kings II 12:9) Selfishly, they decided not to collect any money at all. If they’re not going to keep it, they’re not going to collect it.
The High Priest then came up with an ingenious means of collecting money that still works to this day: “And Jehoiada the priest took a chest and bored a hole in its top; and he placed it near the altar on the right, where a person enters the house of the Lord. There all the donations that would be brought into the house of the Lord would be placed.” (Kings II 12:10) Jehoiada, that great innovator, invented the Pushke (Tzedakah Box), and from its funds, a foreman would make sure the repairs were funded.
What does this teach us? That even our greatest religious role models can fail us.
We see this in the major religions today.
It’s well known the scandals that are afflicting the Pope and the leaders of the Church.
Extremist Islamist religious leaders instruct their followers to kill and torture people in the name of the Koran and Allah.
Even pacifist Buddhism is not exempt. Yuval Noah Harari writes in 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, “The history of Buddhism provides a thousand examples of how people who believe in the transience and emptiness of all phenomena and in the importance of having no attachments can squabble and fight over the government of a country, the possession of a building, or even the meaning of a word.” He says, “Today, the human rights record of Buddhist Myanmar is among the worst in the world.”
Although “We answer to a higher authority” is something we would expect from all religious leaders, there’s no guarantee of purity and idealism (It’s amazing you guys found me!). All leaders have clay feet and are influenced by their personal needs. Harari implies that religious leaders from eternity have pushed their personal agendas forward first and then rationalized them from their religious texts.
Although it’s a dispiriting message, it has a silver lining. If great people are a mix of good and bad, then we too must also be a mix of good and bad. How many times do we look at ourselves as two different entities? We’re noble in some areas and base in others. Sometimes we fall and do or say things we later desperately regret. Why? Because we are human. If we look at ourselves from a historical perspective, we’ll also see great leaders showing failings. If so, when we ourselves fail, we shouldn’t let it discourage us. Michael Jordan famously said, “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
Our secular and religious leaders are human too. They may fail us. But they (and we) may also succeed. When we lose hope in our leaders, we should take Jehoiada’s lead and think out of the box- or maybe just invent the box! We’ll need to follow Gandhi’s exhortation, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”
 Harari, Yuval Noah. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (p. 310). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.