Lazer Gurkow

Ki Tisa: The Buck Stops Here

The buck stops here, was a sign on the desk of President Harry S Truman. It is a spin off the aphorism, “pass the buck”—punting responsibility to someone up the line. When you are president, Truman would often say, the buck stops here. You are responsible. If you don’t like it, don’t take the job. In another of Truman’s plain-spoken aphorisms, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.”

In our parshah, we have two examples of the buck stops here.

  1. When the Jews worshipped the Golden Calf, Moses was blissfully ignorant. He was atop Mount Sinai, studying Torah with G-d. G-d spoke harshly to Moses and said, “Go descend; your people that you brought out of Egypt are corrupt” (Exodus 32:7). As our sages said: “I only promoted you on behalf of my children. Now that they sinned, I have no need for you” (Berachos 32a)?
  2. The Talmud (Chulin 139b) relates that the Torah alludes to Mordechai with the words, mar dror—pure myrrh (Exodus 30:23)—an ingredient in the anointing oil used in the Tabernacle. In Aramaic, mar dror is mara-dachya, which sounds like Mordechai. Mara-dachya means pure bitterness. Now, the Jews of Shushan, who went to the party of Achashverosh against Mordechai’s advice, had something to be bitter about—to repent for. But why is Mordechai associated with bitterness, what did he have to be bitter about? What sins did he need to repent?

These two events demonstrate that if the people fail, the leader is responsible. If something is lacking in the follower, it is because something is lacking in the leader. If the leaders were not lacking in this area, the followers would not fail. So, what did Moses and Mordechai do wrong, where were they lacking?

A Murderous Court
The Talmud (Mishnah, Makos 1:10) teaches that if a Jewish court would execute more than one person in seven (some said seventy) years, it was a destructive court. The ostensible reason: there are so many ways to disqualify testimony that if the court failed to exonerate a defendant more than once in seven (or seventy) years, they were not trying hard enough.

However, this explanation is problematic. What if the court presides over a particularly violent region or generation? Is it the fault of the courts that the people are violent and that they do so openly without regard for witnesses? Why is the court considered destructive? The people are destructive.

The answer is that the judge’s role is not just to mete out punishment. It is to issue preventative rulings and organize preventative programs that motivate potential criminals to change their ways. If the courts are not active enough with the youth, not involved with the community, haven’t developed personal relationships with juveniles before they became delinquent, the court is slacking.

The court’s authority is not merely to sit in judgement once a crime has been committed. It is to be active in the community to discourage and disincentivize crime. It is to ensure that the educational institutions are empowered, have the funds, the programs, and the teachers, to reach the children before they veer off into a lifetime of crime. It is to ensure that the extracurricular programs in the community are robust and attractive. That they introduce children to solid and stimulating alternatives to crime.

If the community is so violent that a court must execute more than one person in seven (or seventy) years,  the judges, the leaders, are doing something wrong. Their leadership style is causing the destructiveness in the community. They need to consider alternative models. They need to do something different. Continuing on the same path while blaming the criminals is akin to passing the buck. If you are a judge, the buck stops here.

The same could be said of Moses. Before he left his people to ascend to Mount Sinai, he neglected to tell them precisely when he would return. He never imagined that they would panic and feel abandoned when he left them. He failed to explain what would happen, how long it would last, and what they should do in case his return was a little later than they expected.

Moses never imagined that they would consider a Golden Calf. He never saw that coming. This means that he did not know his people. G-d selected Moses because when he was a shepherd, he looked after each sheep individually and knew its particular needs. G-d expected Moses to do the same for G-d’s children. Know each of them individually and understand their foibles and needs.

Had Moses done that, He would have foreseen what the Jews were capable of and He could have taken steps to redirect them. Instead, he dropped the ball. This makes him responsible for the sin of the people. When you are the leader, the buck stops here.

The same holds true for Mordechai. His big failure was that he did not inspire his followers to avoid the great party. This party celebrated the demise of the Jewish people. Achashverosh was aware that the Jewish prophets foretold that their exile would last for seventy years.  By Achashverosh’s count, the seventy years had expired and the Jews were still in exile. His party celebrated the death of their dreams.

At the party, he dared display the sacred Temple vessels that the Babylonians has captured when they destroyed the Temple. These vessels fell under the domain of Persia when Babylon was conquered by Persia. The entire motif of the party was the death of the Jewish religion, people, and creed.

It was important to the Persians that Jews attend the party. For that very reason it was important to Mordechai that Jews not attend the party. Sadly, the Jews felt beholden to the Persians and felt privileged to have been invited. They did not want to trifle with the king’s ego by turning down his invitation.

Mordechai failed to reach them. He failed to help them see that by pacifying Achashverosh, they were celebrating the death of Judaism. He failed to help them understand that if they broke with G-d, G-d would withdraw His protection. He failed to help them see that Jews can’t survive by seeking their enemies’ favor. That this path would inadvertently bring about Haman’s plot to annihilate them.

This was a failing of Mordechai. Had he succeeded, the people would not have attended the party. They were not the only ones with a fault to repent for. Mordechai was also lacking. The buck stops here. He came through brilliantly when he inspired the Jews to stand strong for a complete year and not break with their faith. He found the way to their hearts, and by doing so, rectified his previous failing.

Indeed, mara-dachya is a symbol of repentance. When Mordechai corrected his own failures, he helped the people correct their failures.

The lesson for us is that we are each responsible for everyone in our social circle. If we know a Jew, we are responsible for them. When we observe their failings, we can’t wash our hands of them. We must find a way to reach them, inspire them, and nurture their faith. If we do, we both succeed. If we don’t, we both fail. The buck stops here.

About the Author
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow, a renowned lecturer, serves as Rabbi to Congregation Beth Tefilah in London Ontario. He is a member of the curriculum development team at Rohr Jewish Learning Institute and is the author of two books and nearly a thousand online essays. You can find his work at