Donald Trump Is a Nebekh: Why That Matters This Yom Kippur

When I look at Donald Trump, I see a nebekh. That is not to excuse the vile things he has said and done over the course of his life, and in particular during his presidential campaign. He bears the ultimate responsibility for them all, and, far too late to be helpful, is paying the price with what is left of his business brand and personal reputation.

The shame of Trump’s life is that the people who were closest to him never told him the truth about himself. Instead of meaningfully intervening when it could have made a difference, they reinforced him, defended him, and even egged him on. Some were motivated by the desire to remain in powerful positions. Others saw him as a opportunity to make money. Others were caught up in the sheer excitement and thrill of being around a rich, powerful man who had no boundaries and was capable of doing or saying anything. Surely they all knew there would be a reckoning, but their own self-interest kept them on the Trump Train until it, inevitably, went off the rails. They are paying the price with their careers and credibility.

Dahlia Lithwick wrote for Slate that what was so horrifying about the Access Hollywood revelations is that the Trump who bragged about sexual harassment and assault was the candid, unguarded Trump whereas the polite Trump he showed to Arianne Zucker immediately afterwards was the facade. I would argue that there is, in fact, no “real Trump.” He is, in fact, nothing BUT a performance, nothing but the persona that swallowed him whole years ago.

In his Laws of Repentance, Maimonides describes how the Biblical Pharaoh’s punishment for refusing to free the Israelites when he had the chance was losing his capacity for free will and ability to repent. Pharaoh suffered to be sure, but the brunt of the final plagues was borne by the Egyptians. When pundits note how easily Trump is baited, how “he cannot help himself,” they are, perhaps, more correct than they know. It is, at the end, sad that he ended up this way, and sadder that, at seventy years old, the chances of him meaningfully turning his life around are slim.

Trump is a nebekh because, for whatever reasons, he lacked the reflective capacity to prevent himself from turning into what he is, and because those around him stood by and watched it happen. The very real damage he has caused so many people over his life, let alone the ragged tear he is ripping in our body politic, is the result.

The Al Het confessional that we repeat so many times over the course of Yom Kippur contains the sin of “verbal, [meaning, insincere] confession.” This year, Trump’s example highlights for me the value of sometimes being forced to apologize, because he is the ultimate case study of somebody who never was, and therefore never learned how. An insincere confession may be a sin that, in and of itself, requires repentance, but it still may be better than no confession at all.

The Yom Kippur confessionals, even when recited quietly and privately, are set in the plural (“the sin that we sinned”). Perhaps this forces us to reflect not only on the sins we personally commit, but those we enable other people to commit, either directly or by contributing to a culture that gives them the license to test the waters. Conversely, it reminds us that even the sins we ourselves commit are not performed in a vacuum, but have a lot to do with the environment that we create around ourselves, the people we surround ourselves with, and the level of accountability we tolerate in our own lives.

About the Author
Avraham Bronstein is rabbi of The Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, NY.
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