Steve Sotloff OBM
By Yonatan Gordon
Life is full of extremes and while many of us tread this balance privately, such luxuries rarely exist for those in the public arena. But whereas politicians find ways to respond without really responding, or publically act and then secretly rescind, the life of a journalist is typically much more transparent. Their life work is as you as see before you. And their bias from or dedication to the truth is often visible at the click of a tweet.
It is then clear that the most transparent stories are not of politicians or celebrities, but of the journalists that cover these political or entertainment related stories. It is the journalist’s difficult decisions made while reporting that can serve as long-lasting lessons that remain long after the headline has passed.
With this in mind we can begin to speak about two extremes from this week. The first is an extreme from western culture—the story of the hacking and release of hundreds of immodest pictures of celebrities—and the second is the tragic killing of journalist Steve Sotloff. As mentioned, in both cases I would like to focus on the decisions made by journalists—not the celebrities or politicians surrounding these stories—and attempt to learn some lessons from them both.
First it should be clarified what two extremes I am speaking of. The celebrity story—a story from western culture—corresponds to the chaotic extreme of the descendants of Esau, Jacob’s brother. The second extreme—from the arab world—is from the chaotic extreme of the descendants of Ishmael, Isaac’s half-brother (or death worship as will be explained).
Now when we speak of secular or western culture, the first task is to isolate the concept behind the “secular” story and source it within the Torah. The motivation for doing so is to combat the tide of secularism. In Hebrew, the word “secular” means to profane or make hollow. For our purposes it is an attempt to promote a holy concept without its context within the landscape of Torah. As the sages say, the pig sticks out its cloven foot and says “look… I’m kosher!” yet inside it does not chew its cud. Likewise, while top PR agencies are very good at promoting the “foot”—some attractive concept that approximates a Torah concept—what they and western culture lack is the “kashrut certification” that presents this attractive concept within the landscape of Torah.
So to abstract this story of hundreds of immodest celebrity pictures reaching the public, we can call this a story about “revealing skin.” While revealing skin is unfortunately nothing new to Hollywood—and western culture—the difference here is that journalists began regretting taking part in the story. Ostensibly this is because these celebrities didn’t willingly publicize these images. But the deeper lesson is that these western journalists—even journalists who have spent their careers “revealing” what should remain concealed while covering the celebrity beat—realized that it was wrong to reveal. And as a result, some started regretting their part in promoting the story.
While it first started to become known several weeks ago, the headlines began to surge forth during this past week; since the start of the Hebrew month of Elul, the month of teshuvah (repentance). This then is our first lesson. That from this story which represents an extreme example of western culture, we can learn the importance of teshuvah— regret over past misdeeds and the desire to henceforth adopt a better path. This lesson applies equally to journalists, celebrities, and to us all.
The second lesson from this story is that skin—the desires of the flesh—can be redeemed and rectified through the “strong river” of charity. As explained in an article from Rabbi Ginsburgh, in the month of Elul, we need to be willing to give “skin” (its numerical value in Hebrew, 276) in order to save our skin from the clutches of Satan’s advocacy.
Therefore the proper response when hearing of this first story is to strengthen our efforts to rectify and redeem the skin or the desires of the flesh we exhibited during this past year. And to be willing to give tzedakah like a “strong river” as part of the teshuvah process.
The second story came as the result of either arab extremism or death worship. Notice that while religions have been associated with both western culture and the arab world, there is no need to mention them here as they are secondary to the spiritual underpinnings behind the discussion. And since our focus is on the journalist’s themselves, we don’t need to concern ourselves with classifying exactly what type of evil this evil is.
Between two extremes there is a mid-point and our mid-point is truth. At one extreme, we saw an example from western culture of what we call false light (the word light, אוֹר, is cognate to skin, עוֹר). But the extreme that we are now discussing is what we call the extreme of false morality. They consider their way true and just and have labeled others (even those similar to them) as the opposite. They have a desire to reveal something, but their revelation is centered on false morality not on false light.
The problem of course is that their morality is immoral, the most immoral. As such, the means then to rectify this second story is to increase our efforts to promote truth. Whereas we can say that the rectification of the first story—along with teshuvah and increasing tzedakah—is to promote the light of Torah, what is needed to respond to the second are true stances and public declarations in accordance with the holy Torah. It is also clear that Steve Sotloff’s prayers and fasting on Yom Kippur already brought about the beginnings of the truthful rectification to this story, the very story that cost him his life.
In summation, if you expect to see a change in the world for the better, expect to see it come from journalists first. While celebrities should learn to promote the light of Torah instead of skin (the desires of the flesh), and politicians should borrow a page from the playbook from the life of a truth-dedicated journalist, still it is the journalists themselves that owe their allegiance neither to production companies nor political parties.
The lesson then, the thought that rectifies both these stories simultaneously, is that we are all free agents for truth. Hired by idealism and powered by a drive to make the world a more truthful place.
In the words of Barak Barfi, spokesman for the Sotloff family, “Steve was no hero. Like all of us, he was a mere man who tried to find good concealed in a world of darkness.”