“Even in situations where there is little concern that one may commit a sin, the proper course is to remain above any possible suspicion of misconduct.”
I have always grappled with how perception can become reality and one’s reputation can be ruined by half-truths or gossip. Let’s face it: gossip websites and tabloids are popular because people love to gain insight into the lives of the rich and famous and the more salacious the better. And if a powerful person has stumbled or is accused of something untoward and regardless of the truth, the piling on in these media sources become intense.
So, how does someone protect their reputation when it is human nature to jump to conclusions based on limited information? Certain professions in particular can be damaged by a loss of trust. This includes the professions that safeguard other people’s hard-earned money. The livelihood of those who work in these professions is based on trust and they are expected to behave with the upmost integrity. This was true of the priests who were responsible for collecting funds from the chamber in the Temple when it stood in Jerusalem.
We are told that the priests were required to behave above suspicion, including giving the impression of suspicion. This is not the first time in the Talmud where we have come across the concept that outward appearance matters, and one must not just be above reproach but appear above reproach. This was a revelation for me, because we spent so much time in the first Tractate discussing the importance of intention. Later on in the Talmud, we were introduced to the idea that along with intention, appearances matter.
The notes in the Koren Talmud say that unlike other monetary matters that require at least two officers (and those in banking will be familiar with the four eyes principle), the priest entered the Temple chamber alone to collect the funds, which were stored in three baskets labelled alef, beit and gimmel respectively. (As an aside, because nothing is so straight-forward in the Talmud, Rabbi Yishmael said they were labeled with the Greek words, alfa, beta, gamma.) In order to avoid giving off the appearance that the priest who collected the funds would snatch a little for himself, we are told that he must not wear a cuffed garment, an amulet, phylacteries, or sandals or shoes. If I am reading this correctly, he was expected to enter the chamber barefoot.
We are told that there is concern for the priest’s integrity if the circumstances of his wealth changes. This is true of banking today, where a dramatic change in someone’s wealth can be a red flag of potential bad behavior. The Talmud tells us that if someone becomes poor, then he is under suspicion of stashing shekels away somewhere. If he becomes rich, then the speculation is that it is from stealing funds, “even though he did not actually do so.”
The Talmud provides practical advice to prevent someone from coming under unfound suspicion. God may know that the accused is innocent, but we are told “even though one should not suspect someone of stealing consecrated shekels, the one collecting the funds from the chamber must nevertheless take these precautions, as a person must appear justified before people just as he must appear justified before the Omnipresent.”
At the end of the day, regardless of one’s profession or status in life, all we have is our good name and reputation. Today’s Daf Yomi reading is a reminder that we must guard our good name and reputation above all else, because it is our most precious possession and it difficult to rehabilitate once it has been sullied. There is also the reminder through the words “one should not suspect someone of stealing…” that we need to have fact-based evidence before we speculate about another’s alleged transgressions.
I wrote in a previous blog about a man who asked for repentance after slandering the name of a certain Rabbi. When he attempted to repent before the Rabbi, he was told to tear apart a pillow and scatter its feathers to the wind. When he completed the task, he was told by the Rabbi to go back and collect all the feathers. When this man said that it was an impossible ask because the feathers had scattered to the wind, the Rabbi said that was the point of the exercise and once a person’s good name is tainted, the damage cannot be undone.
Perception becomes reality and it is difficult to take back bad words and expunge them from where they have been scattered. Today’s Daf Yomi is a reminder that once untruths are scattered to the wind, and along with them one’s name, they take on a life of their own and are difficult to retrieve.