I can barely keep up with all the public apologies and political maneuverings engineered by some those trying to distance themselves from embarrassing associates and advisers.
Recently, New York Gov. Elliot Spitzer, the champion of the poor and the downtrodden, resigned under a cloud of dishonor and shame. Then, a few days later, the new governor, David Paterson, publicly declared that he and his wife have had multiple affairs.
Soon afterward, Sen. Barack Obama denounced his pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, for racially charged criticisms of America. Sen. Hillary Clinton, Obama's rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, recently apologized for comments made by her husband, Bill, and by former Democratic vice presidential candidate, Geraldine Ferraro, that many considered insensitive to the black community. Sen. John McCain also put some space between himself and the negative statements his pastor, John Hagee, has made about the Catholic Church.
Let's be clear: No political leader is free from guilt! All commit egregious sins, both private and public. I am most critical of Spitzer, for he was so quick to condemn others while obviously finding it quite easy to excuse his own flawed behavior.
Fit to Lead?
Our Torah portion this week, Shemini, addresses the very issues of integrity, honesty and responsibility in leadership. It makes the reader ask, "Who is fit to lead?"
The portion begins with the seven-day ceremony of ordination, marking the investiture of Aaron and his children as priests. At the conclusion of the ordination, Moses hands over the authority for making the required sacrifices to Aaron and the other kohanim. He tells them, "Come forward to the altar and sacrifice your sin offering and your burnt offering, making expiation for yourself and for the people, and sacrifice the people's offering and make expiation for them, as the Lord has commanded."
Aaron is to perform, in other words, two sacrifices. His first offering would be for his own sins and the sins of the community, while the second was to be only for those moral failings of the community. Maimonides, writing in 12th-century Spain and observing this redundancy, noted, "Learn that [only] the innocent can atone for the guilty."
In other words, Aaron could not help anyone else with his or her ruptured relationship with God until he first confronted his own sin. Hypocrisy was not to be tolerated. Aaron and his sons were not to condemn others for their weaknesses without first examining their own.
Frankly, I'm less concerned with a politician's marital relations than with his or her ability to govern. What he or she does within marriage is private. What I can't tolerate, however, is a leader who condemns the sins of others, but won't recognize flaws in himself.
The sexual preference of Idaho Sen. Larry Craig is his own business and should not be a part of any public discourse. What should be discussed, however, is his propensity to criticize others publicly for what he himself is doing in private. The Talmud teaches, "The Holy One detests him who speaks one thing with his mouth and another in his heart."
True leaders don't have to be perfect. But they need to have the courage to look at themselves with moral clarity and possess the strength to hold themselves to the same standards they hold others to. Aaron and his sons could not lead the people of Israel spiritually and encourage atonement if they failed to control themselves and examine their own behavior critically. Leadership must begin with self-scrutiny and self-control.
It's in short supply today, but integrity, as the Torah teaches, is a key ingredient of leadership.
Rabbi Gregory Marx is the religious leader of Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen.