Sep 17, 2007

Saying you're sorry and meaning it

Last week I gave the "dvar torah" at the congregation I go to. That's basically a teaching related to the week's Torah portion.
With the High Holidays coming up (actually, I'm writing this entry in between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur) one of the main themes of the weekly reading was repentance.

In my dvar torah, I referenced a case that I studied in law school in a legal ethics class. I should note that legal ethics and "everyday" ethics are not the same thing. Often lawyers are bound by rules of the profession to do things that sound unethical to most of us. (One example, among many, is defending a guilty person.)

In the case, a young lawyer killed someone while drunk driving. He was disbarred and there was a $250k civil judgment against him for the wrongful death. Instead of paying the widow and children of the man he killed, he hide his assets, placed his house in his wife's name and paid the minimum monthly installments. He paid somewhere in the range of .5% of the money he owed. Later, he declared bankruptcy in order to clear the judgment debt. (That apparently was the only reason he had to declare it since all his assets were not in his name.)

After 17 years, he had moved states a couple of times and had repeatedly been denied entry in the state bar on the basis of moral concerns. Finally, a CA court was asked to consider if it was fair to continue to punish him for the act that he committed as a young man.

The court ruled that he should be admitted to the Bar. The court reasoned that a) 17 years was a long time, b) the debt had been cleared by bankruptcy, c) the man said he was very sorry for the tragedy, d) 14 or so lawyers and judges vouched for him and e) his act as a drunk driver has no bearing on his fitness to be a lawyer.

My take on the case (which I have recited from memory since I haven't bothered look it up again for the sake of only my blog entry) is that 1) evading a judgment claim was unethical and directly reflective on his fitness to practice as a lawyer (since he would in theory want his judgment claims to be paid), 2) bankruptcy only wipes out a legal obligation to pay, not the moral obligation, and 3) a statement by him that he was sorry rings false if he does not acknowledge that he destroyed a family and still needed to make amends.

This is where I tied the case into the Torah portion. At this time of year in the Jewish calender is a time when Jews say they are sorry to God for their sins against Him and say they are sorry to their fellow man for their sins against them. There are a lot of Jews that go around saying "I'm sorry" this week because they want to start the new year with a clean slate.

The point I was making is that saying "I'm sorry" because the teacher/parent/deity/judge told you to is meaningless unless there is true sincerity. God knows if you mean it when you tell Him that you are sorry, but the neighbor whose window you smashed by mistake probably won't believe you unless you offer to repair the window.

In most circumstances, the words "I'm sorry" won't cut it. Maybe saying them out loud in front of others will do it. Maybe showing the person you wronged what you are doing to make sure you won't do it again will work. Most of the time, though, you are just going to have to offer to fix whatever it is you broke. (You have to mean it when you offer to fix it too.)

I disagreed with the court because I felt that "moral concerns" should go beyond the superficial platitude of "I'm REALLY REALLY sorry". That didn't work in the playground when I was seven and it shouldn't work in our legal system.

P.S. I should note that sometimes an admission of wrongdoing really is all that is needed. I have read that many medical malpractice cases would be resolved if the hospital lawyers and insurance lawyers would allow doctors to personally confront and apologize for making a mistake.

1 comment:

Nikki said...

remember when you used to write blogs? I do. I miss them.


Write more about Adiv's travels!

Hope all is well

Shabbat shalom!