Corruption, Transparency and the Soul of the World

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, November 22, 2019 / 24 Cheshvan 5780

Summary: Rabbi Kosak examines in some depth the moral themes that emerge in this week’s Torah reading, especially Abraham’s resistance to corruption and his commitment to transparency. Then, using some sociological data, Rabbi Kosak contrasts those themes to the present moment. The modern age doesn’t happily stand up to this comparison.

In this week’s Torah portion, “Chayei Sarah,” we learn of the death of our matriarch Sarah, Abraham’s efforts to secure a permanent burial spot for her, and his desire to find a suitable wife for his middle-aged bachelor son, Isaac.

Contained within these narratives are themes that pertain to contemporary society. What is the role of immigrants in a society and may they own property? May someone take advantage of their name and status to gain financial favors? In a global marketplace of ideals and values, where and how do you find a spouse who shares your commitments? And is that even a good thing?

Let’s examine these themes.

After Sarah death, Abraham enters into a complex and highly ritualized process of purchasing a burial plot from a Ephron the Hittite. Specifically, Abraham was negotiating for a cave located in the field of Machpela. We learn a tremendous amount about ancient cultures from narratives like these and corroborating parallel texts from other regional societies. We understand that land is more valuable than money, and that it is not normally traded to someone from outside of a small clan group.

This concept, for example, appears when Torah apportions tribal land holdings to the twelve tribes. The land divisions in that case were meant to be justly distributed based on tribal size, while simultaneously guaranteeing that the division would be permanent. In that way, no tribe would in the future end up with more than their initial inheritance. Moderns may quibble on the efficacy or justice of such a system in our highly mobile world where wealth is concentrated. Nonetheless, the system was generated from a deep concern of fairness and checks were built in to the system to ensure some basic level of parity. [For those interested in political philosophy, it would be constructive to compare the Torah here to John Rawl’s theory of justice and his idea of a veil of ignorance.]

In our parashah, however, Abraham is an immigrant who stands outside of the basic agreements of Hittite society. When Ephron offers him the land for free, we thus are being shown Abraham’s perceived status—despite being an immigrant, the Hittites have some level of respect either for Abraham himself (traditional Jewish view) or for the dead’s rights to be buried. In our capitalistic society, free often sounds good; yet we also understand that you get what you pay for. If Abraham had accepted the land at no cost, his ownership of it would always be open to challenges. Instead, he ends up paying considerably more for the land than its then current value. In the interest of preserving the legality of his ownership, he enters into this agreement in full transparency—the negotiations occur in front of the entire society. While Abraham had some self-interested reasons for this, it simultaneously demonstrates his strict commitment to honesty and his rigid stance against corruption. We previously witnessed this character trait in action during the Battle of the Nine Kings (Genesis 14:1-24) when Abraham refuses even a thread or a shoelace as war booty. He is incorruptible by financial matters and actively rejects the privileges his position gives him.

As parents, we want a great many things for our children. We want them to be healthy and happy. We’d like them to have sufficient material needs so that they can enjoy a comfortable life. Most parents, whether they are conscious of it or not, also desire their progeny to share their beliefs and world view. When children veer away from those values and toward their own moral self-expression, often during adolescence, this parental desire becomes manifestly clear, often in the form of parent-child disagreements or worse.

Abraham was committed to passing as many of his values on to Isaac as possible. He thus sends an unnamed household servant on a mission to find Isaak a wife who shares Abraham’s tribal affiliations and culture. Let’s not forget that Abraham is a global citizen and world traveller. That may not be the normal way of viewing him, but the Torah makes abundantly clear that before settling in the land of Canaan, he and his family are semi-nomadic. They move periodically for economic opportunity (good grazing land) yet remain in areas long enough to understand the cultures around them. This makes him a sophisticate for his time and place. He has learned how to negotiate local rules, as his land purchase and many other interactions make clear. He is not a rube.

Given this, his decision to find Isaac a wife (a normal parental duty back then) from his own background is active and conscious. Most new immigrants could probably relate to this desire. Even if they have learned to navigate their host culture, a gap normally in values, customs and traditions normally remains. Sometimes those differences are just that, differences. Other times, they touch closer to the bone of our deep identities and nonnegotiable morals.

These reflections come on the heel of Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu’s corruption indictment and charges that he traded political favors for “goods” that would directly benefit him and his family and not the country he has been elected to dutifully serve.

This is hardly an issue with which Israel alone is faced. Every couple of years, I find it instructive to peruse the ranking of countries based on their levels of corruption. Click here to see the 2019 rankings. The scale of corruption runs from zero (ultimately corrupt) to a 100 (very clean), and this year, more than two thirds of countries around the world fall below the fifty point mark. Israel, with a score of 61, is the 31st least corrupt country on the planet. Personally, I find this low score quite distressing.

Simultaneously, Israel, U.A.E. and Qatar are the only countries in the Middle East and Northern Africa to even score above the 50% ranking. Most score in the 30’s, 20’s or even low teens. So this region of the world continues to struggle with building just societies. Our neighbors impact our behavior normalizing that which should outrage us. Closer to home, the USA is the 22nd least corrupt country, scoring 71. Of note, that has been declining. In 2015, we earned a score of 76. Surely the land of the free and the home of the brave ought to do better?

May we all nurture a sense of “yosher da’at,” of intellectual honesty,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

Many reasons have been given for a global increase of corruption. Misinformation or fake news and its proliferation around the world is often given as an important contributor to the spread of corruption. There is undoubtedly truth to this. Simultaneously, it’s made me wonder. The promise of transparency has been that it would reduce corruption and limit the power of autocrats.

  1. But in a world plagued by both misinformation AND transparency at the same time, is it possible that transparency contributes to corruption?
  2. When we constantly hear about the persistence of corruption, greed, violence and genocide, do we become inured to the presence of evil?
  3. Do we rationalize away lesser crimes? Do we misuse compassionate understanding to accept the flaws in others and ourselves rather than helping one another improve?
  4. How would you depict the soul of the world right now? If we accept that we are all interconnected, this ought to be possible to consider.

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