From corruption to cleanliness

On Yom Kippur, we search and confess our wrongdoings knowing that if we're sincere, atonement is assured.

September 26, 2006 22:38
4 minute read.
From corruption to cleanliness

Yom Kippur painting. (photo credit: Maurycy Gottlieb)


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On Rosh Hashana individuals and nations are judged, and on Yom Kippur their futures are determined - whether they are deserving of life or death, peace or strife, prosperity or poverty, war or peace, exile or tranquility. In that process we repetitively search and confess our wrongdoings in the knowledge that if we are sincere, atonement is assured. The shorter form of that verbal confession is the Ashamnu prayer, comprising just 24 words dealing with a litany of sins relating to our earning and spending money, our social treatment of each other, even our macro-economic policies. These are evils that work their way through all aspects of life, until the whole society becomes corrupt. Why is the confession couched in the plural? In a properly functioning and moral society, the community provides guidelines for ethical behavior and makes them into norms through peer pressure. When this is not done, we all share in the immorality. Ashamnu, bagadnu - "We have done wrong": by abusing the trust placed in us by others; by denying a debt; or by using trust or client funds for our personal needs; by engaging in shoddy workmanship, a callous redundancy of long-standing employees; by leaving contracts unfulfilled. Gazalnu - "We have robbed": by taking forcefully anything belonging to someone else; by withholding wages; by using power to force others to agree to a transaction against their will. Dibarnu dofi - "We have blasphemed": Fraud, theft and tax evasion, when perpetrated by Jews, desecrate God's name and associate all Israel with the perpetrator. He'evinu - "We have caused perversion": by, for example, misleading people through false advertising and exploiting their ignorance or greed. Vehirshanu - "We have encouraged lawlessness": by buying goods and services from firms that evade taxes, or by investing in firms that pollute the environment. Zadnu - "We have sinned willfully": Arrogance leads us to delay payments knowingly, to causing jealously through conspicuous consumption and to shirking our social responsibilities. Hamasnu - "We have extorted": We create a pervasive atmosphere of corruption through petty cheating, finding loopholes in the legal system and abusing weaknesses. Society is destroyed when marginal crimes become the norm. Tafalnu sheker - "We have forged lies": A false impression is equivalent to an outright lie - for example, the beautifying of financial statements to present a false picture of a corporation's finances. And giving advice to clients without disclosing conflicts of interest is Judaism's understanding of "putting a stumbling block in the path of the blind." Kizavnu - "We have been deceitful": by hiding assets from creditors after pleading bankruptcy, or from the taxman; or by claiming credit for somebody else's ideas. Latznu - "We have scoffed": Denigrating goods or services that are being sold, either to pay less for them or to sell our own instead. Maradnu - "We have rebelled": Secret crimes are acts of rebellion against God, who sees and records all actions no matter how we hide them - copying software or cassettes illegally, for example. Niatznu - "We have been scornful": by insulting those over whom we have authority, or by denigrating goods or services offered by our competitors. Sararnu - "We have turned away": Obsession with careers and business can lead to turning away from our families, our communities, even God. Avinu - "We have been perverse": Perversions can exist within the letter of the law, for example driving the hardest bargain imaginable or withholding monetary favors from the poor, aged or ill. Pashanu - "We have oppressed": by exploiting another person's ignorance of market conditions or of prices. Tzaranu - "We have persecuted": for example, by humiliating our colleagues or employees in front of others, by showing up their lack of ability or their ignorance. Kishinu oref - "We have been obstinate": Waiving our legitimate legal rights for the benefit of others is Judaism's hallmark of piety. Rashanu - "We have been lawless": via the unauthorized use of employers' telephones and facilities, insider trading or making political contributions in exchange for government contracts. Shihatnu - "We have corrupted": Unofficial payments to anybody in a position to influence business or public-sector decisions, or the level of health or educational services, or employment possibilities, are all examples of corruption. Bribery corrupts both the recipient and the giver. Ti'avnu - "We have committed abominations": The Torah describes false weights and measures as abominations to God. False declarations regarding quality, price and quantity of goods come into this category. Ta'inu - "We have gone astray": Our desire for status and gratification blurs the distinction between wants and needs, so that more is always better than less. In the pursuit of more, we let ethical restraints collapse. Ti'tanu - "We have led others astray": Peer pressure and exploitative advertising often lead people to commit fraud and theft in order to achieve higher but unrealistic standards of living. Yom Kippur atones only for actions between human beings and God. For the wrongs that we do to each other, only remorse and restitution can ensure atonement. The writer is the founder and was the first director of the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem.

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