‘Private’ behavior and universal consequences

Rabbi Yonason Goldson

By Rabbi Yonason Goldson

 “Someone is always watching.”

Movie fans will recognize this as the punchline from “Ocean’s Eleven,” a glib repartee that ultimately recoils on Andy Garcia and drives Julia Roberts back into the arms of George Clooney. Political observers might remember that line now that former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich was recently (and briefly) in the news while he was in court seeking a delay in resentencing as he attempts to have the Supreme  Court hear his case. 

The convicted politico should have uttered the film’s words when he found himself the subject of state and federal investigators.

Instead, in 2005, the governor said: “This kind of examination isn’t a bad thing if you’re confident that your systems are working and that you know that you try to do things honestly, ethically and responsibly.”

 That was three years before he was indicted on corruption charges for seeking to sell the vacated senate seat of Barack Obama to the highest bidder.

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The pathology of yet another corrupt elected official is hardly a subject worthy of our attention. However, this particular combination of denial and arrogance is truly breathtaking. 

In the days prior to Blagojevich’s conviction in 2008, the Associated Press reported that despite relentless media coverage of taped profanities and gross improprieties, together with the lowest voter approval ratings in the history of civil service, the governor appeared confident that he would come through with his political career intact. The AP quoted Chicago defense lawyer John Beal, who was in the courtroom with Blagojevich, as saying: “You would think he would see his life collapsing around him. But he was the center of attention and seemed to love it.”

One almost envies Blagojevich the comfort of his delusions.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the invention of electric lighting, telecommunications and cinematography began to change the complexion of modern society. At the time, the leader of European Jewry, the venerable Chofetz Chaim, observed that the introduction of technologies scarcely imagined a generation before provided a lesson for any spiritually sensitive 

person to recognize that the universe is not indifferent to our moral conduct.

Previously, the natural cycle of night and day imposed strict order upon human activity. Because most people in those times could not afford the limitless supplies of candles necessary to transform night into day, all activity was cut short early by the long nights of winter, and only in summer could the workday stretch late into the evening. Now, inexpensively and with the flick of a switch, the night can be expelled and the secrets of the darkness instantly revealed.

So, too, explained the sage, that which we consider private and secret will one day become illuminated for all to see, when each of us will stand alone in the blinding spotlight of Divine Judgment to account for the decisions we make in this world. The light of truth will transcend the boundaries of secrecy and dispel the shadows of moral twilight. All our obfuscating excuses, defenses and rationalizations will vanish before objective vision and brilliant clarity.

Like him or not, Edward Snowden and his infamous security leak come instantly to mind.

Technology also teaches us to beware the false comfort of selective memory. Cinematic recording taught the world that actions do not vanish after they happen; they can be caught and preserved as images, as can conversations and correspondence. Anything we do may last forever in the public record, just as everything we do will survive our brief passing through this physical world to testify either for us or against us when we arrive at our eternal destination.

A certain Democratic Party front-runner appears on the brink of learning that lesson, painfully, while still an inhabitant of this world.

Similarly, telecommunications connects every corner of the world with every other, so that we no longer live lives that remain separate and apart from the vast majority of human society. Especially today, when cellphone images can catch us at any moment unaware, and when the internet can make any information accessible to the entire planet and impossible to retrieve, we cannot help but reflect upon the universal significance of our actions and the permanence of everything we do.

With increasing frequency, the media report stories of individuals subjected to the shame of unwanted publicity in the form of presumed-private indiscretions or long-forgotten photos taken in moments of immature impetuosity.

Can you say Ashley Madison?

It may offer some small comfort that this kind of embarrassment can be traced back to biblical times. The sages tell us:

If Reuben had known the Torah would record his actions, he would have carried Joseph back to the safe custody of his father rather than merely dissuading his other brothers from committing murder. If Aaron had know the Torah would record his actions, he would have gone out into the desert with a band of musicians to welcome his brother Moses, rather than merely greeting him with joy in his heart. If Boaz had known the Torah would record his actions, he would have served Ruth a grand banquet rather than merely a meal of roasted kernels.

If such spiritual giants as these could lose focus of the ultimate consequences of their actions, how much more careful must ordinary mortals like us be? When we lose our tempers over trivialities, when we act deceitfully in business or fail to rectify a cashier’s error when we are undercharged, when we malign our neighbors and teachers with malicious gossip, when our conduct in synagogue shows a lack of respect for our God and our traditions, in all such cases we are demonstrating the same kind of arrogance and unawareness that has brought down so many politicians who believed that they were above the law or that their actions would go unnoticed.

As much as we might like to spin acts of questionable morality in our favor and allow the haze of forgetfulness to obscure our improprieties, we will find no escape from the full consequences of our actions when we come to stand before the Heavenly Court. On that day, “if only I had known” will prove a feeble defense. 

How much better to reflect upon what is truly good and just, to repent our misdeeds, and to commit ourselves to lives of virtue by dispelling the morbid illusion that our actions go unnoticed and our commitment to a higher purpose goes unrewarded.

In the final days leading up to Rosh Hashanah, when all the world stands in judgment for the coming year, let’s take to heart the lessons of the modern era and remember that our actions last forever and that every moment offers a new opportunity to leave an impression that will endure for all eternity.