The weekly Torah portion and its lessons for all people

Naso, Numbers 4:21-7:89
Owning Up

by Avraham ben Yaakov

A cherished part of American folklore is the story of how as a boy, George Washington, later to become first president of the United States, chopped down his father's cherry tree and, when asked about it, bravely and honestly admitted his deed in the famous words: "Father I cannot tell a lie, I did it with my little hatchet." To which his father replied: "My son, that you should not be afraid to tell the truth is worth more to me than a thousand trees."

Regardless of whether it actually happened as told, the story illustrates the beauty of admitting the truth even if it shows us to be less virtuous than we would have others believe.

After impulsively or purposely carrying out a wrongful act for the sake of some pleasure or other imagined advantage, it is a deep-seated human instinct to evade responsibility, as when Cain, the first murderer, pretended not to know the whereabouts of his slain brother (Genesis 4:9). It takes courage to "own up" - to admit oneself to be the "owner" and perpetrator of the wrong - submitting oneself to the necessary consequences in order to make restitution.


For a child, the price of admitting having cut down a tree may be little more than a telling-off and spanking. But the older, better-known and more respectable people become, the harder it may be for them to own up to their mistakes. Civilized society depends upon integrity and trust, and when a person has a public persona of rectitude, their own pride, the fear of shame and other pressures may make the price of truthfulness seem too high to pay. We are not angels: people commit all kinds of wrongs, small and great, and the usual tendency is either to seek to justify them or to take flight into denial, fibs, lies and cover-ups.

This is particularly visible in public life today, where many different leaders and other influential figures, whether in national and international politics, big business, industry, banking, medicine, science and other spheres, have been responsible for all kinds of misdeeds, wrong decisions and policies that have led to disastrous consequences, often through a negligence that can only be described as criminal. [A few random examples currently in the news might include the enormous scandals surrounding the recent economic "meltdown" and bank failures that have greatly enriched certain players; corporate and government handling of the British Petroleum oil-spill; evidence of academic rigging of global-warming statistics; unresolved questions surrounding 9/11, the claims used to justify the launching of the Iraqi war, the global flu "epidemics"; the marketing of faulty automobiles, and many more.]

The most "advanced" countries in the world have never had more surveillance cameras monitoring not only motorist breaches of traffic regulations but every other kind of behavior on the streets, in all public places, shops, banks, restaurants, hotels, stations, airports etc. Concurrently, the unending stream of revelations about public scams in politics, government, police, banking, business and other spheres indicate no less a level of sophistication in the use of Enron-style paper-shredders and other methods of destroying, hiding or disguising any evidence and tell-tale tracks that might reveal the full extent of the wrongdoing and corruption practiced today at the highest levels.

Rare indeed today is the leader that has the courage to stand up and publicly admit to his errors and misdeeds.

The Torah ethic

Contrast the ethic taught by the Torah in our present portion:

"And God said to Moses: 'Tell the children of Israel: If a man or a woman commit any sin that men commit, perpetrating a trespass against God, that soul shall be guilty . Then they must confess their sin that they carried out; and they must make restitution in full for their guilt. and give it to the person they wronged " (Numbers 5:6-7).

The Torah sages teach us that this verse comes to supplement the verse in Leviticus 5:21: "When a soul sins and perpetrates a trespass against God, dealing falsely with his neighbor in the matter of a deposit or pledge or robbery or oppression."

The sages commented:

"Why is dealing falsely with one's neighbor called a 'trespass against God'? Because anyone who gives a loan or does business with another does so in the presence of witnesses and with a written contract, so that if the other party comes to lie about it, he is lying in the face of the witnesses or the contract. But when a person deposits valuables with another for safekeeping, he does not want any other soul to know about it except the 'third party between them' (i.e. God, who is all-seeing). Therefore if the trustee later denies ever having received the deposit, he is lying against the 'third party between them'" (Rashi on Leviticus 5:21).

This explains why seeking to deny or cover-up a crime or misdeed against another person is also a denial of God, and for this reason the previously-quoted verse in our portion (Numbers 5:7) teaches that it is insufficient for the perpetrator merely to make financial restitution to the victim of his wrongdoing. He must also formally confess his wrongdoing before God and undertake never to repeat it.

Thus we see that there are three steps in making amends for wrongdoing:

1. Correcting the wrong (where possible) by making full financial restitution to the victim of the wrongdoing.

2. Appeasing the victim.

3. Confessing to God.


In the words of Rabbi Moses Maimonides ("Rambam", c. 1137-1204) in his comprehensive Torah law code, the Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance:

"If a person transgresses any law of the Torah, whether a positive commandment or a prohibition, whether with brazen intention or unwittingly, when he wants to repent and turn aside from his sin, he is obliged to make confession before God, blessed be He, as it is written: 'If a man or a woman commit any sin. they must confess their sin that they carried out' (Numbers 5:6-7). This means making verbal confession.

How does one confess? One says, "Please, O God, I have sinned, transgressed and rebelled before You and I did such and such, and I regret it and I am ashamed of my deeds and I will never return to this.'

Likewise those liable to sin and guilt offerings would not secure atonement through their sacrifices until they repented and made verbal confession. Likewise if one has injured his fellow or caused damage to his property, even if he pays him what he owes him, he does not secure atonement until he confesses and turns from ever doing anything similar" (Laws of Repentance 1:1).

It takes great courage to follow this pathway, but only through the necessary truth, honesty and tears of shame and contrition can one come to the joy of being clean with God and man.

It is far better to confess our wrongdoings while still alive in this world than to seek refuge in denial and cover-ups. For God is present everywhere and requires no surveillance cameras or other devices to record our every deed, word and thought. In the words of the Torah sages: "Focus on three things and you will not come to sin. Know what is above you: a seeing eye, a listening ear, and all your actions written in a book" (Ethics of the Fathers 2:1). When the time comes for each person's judgment after death, the book is opened and the recording is replayed. With no possibility of flight or denial, they must admit responsibility for all their deeds and suffer the consequences.

David King of Israel, exemplar of the true leader, never claimed to be perfect. When he sinned, he admitted it, teaching all humanity the path of repentance:

"Be gracious to me, O God, according to Your mercy; according to the multitude of Your compassions erase my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions; and my sin is ever before me.. Behold, You desire truth in the inward parts; let me therefore know wisdom in my inmost heart. Make me hear joy and gladness, that the bones which You have crushed may rejoice. Hide Your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a pure heart, O G-d; and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me away from Your presence; and do not take Your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of Your salvation and let a willing spirit uphold me. Then will I teach transgressors Your ways, and sinners shall return unto You. O Lord, open my lips and my mouth shall declare Your praise. For you do not delight in sacrifice, or else would I give it; You have no pleasure in a burnt-offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise." (Psalms 51:3-5, 8-14, 17-19).




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