I have been blessed to work in Atlanta from 1970 until 1998, first as a synagogue rabbi and then as principal of Yeshiva High School of Atlanta. My role at Yeshiva was primarily that of builder whose job it was to lay the foundation for a Jewish day high school in Atlanta and to insure that it would grow over time.
After I left Atlanta, I assumed a number of principalships where my role was to improve the situation or to solve a particular problem. I was Mr. Fix-it or Mr. Hatchet Man depending on your perspective. In one school, I was told there was a major problem with the librarian who was focused on books, not people, and that she had to go. I was to be the agent of her removal. Board members and other staff told me the same story, and I was mentally prepared to make the change. But then I checked the evaluations of the staff person over the past 10 years, and there was not one negative comment in her file. When I observed her myself, she was engaging her students and I was faced with a dilemma. How could I in good conscience fire her in the absence of negative comments in her record and when her current behavior was satisfactory?
I thought of this incident as I watched The Bourne Legacy, which details a far different crisis of conscience, not one as mundane as the one I faced in dealing with a librarian who was targeted unjustly for firing. Rather, The Bourne Legacy explores a grand crisis of conscience in the life of Aaron Cross, a special-ops soldier, who is given assignments to assassinate people who are a danger to democracy. He is charged with doing a good deed, but the means to accomplish it are morally repugnant. As his superior tells him, “we are morally indefensible and absolutely necessary.” Brutal killing in the name of a worthy cause repulses him; and after fulfilling a number of assignments, he feels morally adrift. Unwilling to obey future orders, Aaron goes AWOL and tries to find solace. But problems arise.
Aaron’s elite team of assassins has been provided with meds that enhance physical and mental abilities. When his superiors realize that the program may be revealed to the public, they decide to abort this clandestine program and kill all the remaining assets. When Aaron becomes aware of this, he determines that his only salvation is to secure more of the drugs so that his enhanced abilities will prevent him from being killed or captured. Alternatively, he learns that he can “viral off” the drugs and retain his enhanced abilities for the rest of his life without taking any more pills. Thus begins an exciting chase with the government in pursuit of Cross as he tries to find a way to elude assassination and preserve his mental and physical edge.
Aaron Cross’s moral dilemma parallels a fascinating Talmudic discussion about whether a person who steals a palm branch to observe the festival of Tabernacles gets credit for performing the mitzvah/good deed. Simply put, can a person do a good deed by committing a sin? The overwhelming consensus of opinion is that one cannot.
Implicit in this talmudic debate is the notion that in all areas of life, one should be careful not to commit a wrongdoing in order to do a good deed, for it places you on a slippery moral slope. Many years ago, a donor anonymously sent large sums of money to the school of which I was principal to assuage his guilt for profiteering from selling drugs. His charitable instincts were laudable, but his nefarious way of supporting the school tainted the school and him. The Bourne Legacy reminds us to be mindful of the motives and manner of those who would encourage us to compromise our honesty for the sake of a noble cause.