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The ethical fork in the road

Two ways lie before you – drive safely

Last month I bought my wife a Lamborghini for her birthday.

Just kidding; she’s still driving her Prius. If we’d held a winning Powerball ticket, that might be another story.

But probably not. Six- and seven-figure sports cars are for movie stars and baseball MVPs, not ordinary people. Just my opinion, of course. If you really want one – or if you want to buy one for your wife – go right ahead.

Unless you’re a rabbi, an imam, or a priest.

These days, no one expects religious leaders to renounce all their worldly goods. But responsible shepherds recognize the perverse irony of preaching spiritual values to the flock while indulging in conspicuous consumption.

Apparently, however, the pastor of Relentless Church in Greenville, S.C., didn’t get the memo. John Gray, the megachurch’s spiritual leader, remains baffled why he’s being criticized for the $200,000 roadster he bought his wife for their eighth wedding anniversary.


Do you remember when the press discovered presidential hopeful John Edwards paying $400 for a haircut? Or when President Barack Obama headed straight for the golf course after lamenting the barbaric execution of journalist James Foley? Or when Mitt Romney challenged his rival to a $10,000 bet during the primary debate?

These are more than careless stumbles on the road of political optics. Each blunder reveals a breathtaking failure to recognize empathy as a critical component of leadership.

A successful leader needn’t be a candidate for sainthood. But anyone who seeks the mantle of Whatever-in-Chief commits implicitly to observe a minimal standard of self-discipline. By definition, public leadership requires the relinquishing of private life. Especially in our age of 24/7 reporting and relentless social media, private behavior automatically invites public scrutiny.

If Pastor Gray, has trouble understanding this, he might gain some insight by reading the story ran alongside reports of his own financial faux pas.

Last week, a middle-aged couple packed the contents of their northern California home into a 26-foot storage truck as they prepared for their move to North Carolina. This would hardly be considered newsworthy, except that Kim and Annette Ringeisen were not taking their possessions with them. They were donating everything they owned to victims of the catastrophic wildfire that ravaged the northern California town of Paradise last month.

“We’ll start over. They’re starting over,” explained Kim, a combat veteran, demonstrating in the most dramatic fashion that great acts of heroism aren’t limited to the battlefield.


“Who is wise?” ask the sages of the Talmud. “The one who learns from every person.”

Even when political and religious leaders fail to lead by example, we can still find inspiration in the most unexpected places. And on rare occasions, Providence presents us with two opposing visions side-by-side – the first reflecting the summit of human nobility while the second exposes mankind at its most self-serving.

Honestly, I can’t imagine giving up my every possession for the comfort of strangers. But I feel better knowing that there are people in the world who will. And I want to be more like them.

Conversely, the callous indifference of leaders who hide behind a facade of respectability may be even more corrosive to our collective soul than the relentless reports of violence and acrimony. But they have their own lessons to teach – by counterexample – which can prove equally instructive.

So whenever the choice presents itself between selfishness and self-sacrifice, do this:

Visualize the day when two souls stand in judgment before the Highest Court. One will offer feeble excuses why it felt justified to wallow in self-indulgence while evangelizing the ways of virtue. The other will need no excuses at all.

Then ask yourself: which would you rather be?

Published in Jewish World Review

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