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Rabbi's Blog

rabbi 05 smallsf badge lgRabbi Joel Landau  (rabbi@adathisraelsf.org) has been the Rabbi of Adath Israel since May 2013. He was ordained by the Chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem and has served previously as a congregational Rabbi in Charleston, South Carolina and Irvine, California. A full biography of Rabbi Landau is available here.


You may have seen the story of Texas teenager Ethan Couch splashed recently across newspaper headlines. In 2013, Couch was arrested for stealing two cases of beer from a Wal-Mart store, drunkenly speeding in his father’s stolen pickup truck at 70 mph with seven teenage passengers, veering off the road, killing four pedestrians and seriously injuring twelve others. Despite these crimes, Couch was let go on probation without any jail sentence. His defense claimed that Couch was a victim of “affluenza.” Commonly discussed by critics of consumerism, affluenza is defined as an inability to understand the consequences of one's actions because of financial privilege.

Whether the defense be wealth or twinkies, it is clear that by legitimizing such rationalizations, the legal system is creating a wider and wider gap between an individual’s actions and the repercussions of such actions. In such an argument, the question must be raised — are individuals ever truly responsible for their actions?

There is a Midrash that says, "Woe to us is the Day of Judgement, woe to us is the Day of Rebuke!” Why does the Midrash mention both the Day of Judgement and the Day of Rebuke, what is the difference between the two? The Beth Halevi explains that there are two types of actions for which a person is judged. The day of judgement is for actions that are clearly wrong. However, there is another type of action, actions that we justify on various grounds: ”I didn't know that I couldn't do it," or "There was no way I could overcome that temptation.” We rationalize and therefore, our guilt must be proven to us, this is the day of rebuke.  We see therefore that the meaning of tochacha, rebuke, is connected with hochacha, proof.

We do not need to look at the legal system for such examples.  I’m sure each of us has been in a situation where we have been asked to give tzedakah, even for a worthy cause, but we felt that we simply did not have the money to give. However, if we were to look at all the blessings we have in our lives and what we actually spend our money on, we would see the contradiction in our actions. Judaism therefore teaches that we cannot hide between excuses and rationalizations, rather our deeds speak eloquently and unmistakably for themselves.

I hope that we can all look into our lives to see what we can do to step out from behind our rationalizations and live according to our values.