Lesson 1: Shoftim – “Hear no evil, see no evil?”: The buck stops here!


Course: Deuteronomy – Part 2
Lesson #1 of 3

Series: The Bible at Work: Career Coaching in the Torah

Teacher: Dr. Benny Benjamin

10Views | Published: August 14, 2023

“It is not only what we do, but also what we do not do, for which we are accountable.”

— Molière (Jean-Baptiste Poquelin)

Shoftim

“Then all the elders of the town nearest the slain person shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the wadi. And they shall make this declaration: ‘Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done’” Deuteronomy 21:6–7.

 

This mystifying ceremony was to be performed when a person was found lying slain in an open area, and the perpetrator was unknown, thus preventing the courts from trying the culprit and precluding any option for the victim’s family to revenge the victim’s death. The authorities whose city is the closest to where the victim was found are obligated to resolve the anomaly of the circumstances of the crime and the absence of a guilty party. The unusual ceremony calls for breaking the neck of a young female calf over a wadi stream. All the elders of the closest town “shall wash their hands over the calf…and declare: ‘Our hands did not shed this blood, and our eyes did not witness it. Absolve Your people Israel…and do not leave the guilt of innocent blood among Your people Israel.” [1] As representatives of the people, the town’s elders were instructed to ask God to exonerate the community for whatever responsibility they may have had regarding this tragic incident. 

 

The ceremony, intended to ‘close the file’ on the mysterious murder, assumes that the leaders of the town closest to the crime are those who may have been in a position to prevent it. Requesting expiation from God for this alleged lapse of vigilance, the elders washed their hands (perhaps an early source of the expression, “washing one’s hands of the problem”). They then declared before God that they had no inkling of what occurred: They did not shed this person’s blood or witness the person’s demise (“Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done”).[2] As the elders made this declaration, we can only surmise that they reflected on how they could have been more vigilant and prevented the loss of life. This would be their time to consider how they could better execute their authority to avert future tragedies.

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“The buck stops here” was a slogan popularized by U.S. President Harry S. Truman, signifying that an organization’s leader has no one else to whom responsibility can be passed. “Ministerial responsibility” in the British parliamentary system implies that whatever activities are performed in the purview of the particular ministry or department is the responsibility of the minister or the individual in charge, even if a staff member performed a particular action without the minister’s knowledge. 

Assuming responsibility and accountability for one’s actions is the mark of any worker at all levels. A standard job interview question is “Tell me about a time you failed (or didn’t achieve a goal).” The interviewer will expect you to describe the situation, noting if you acknowledge your shortcoming or show how your colleagues let you down. The interviewer will expect to hear what you learned from the event and how you instituted modifications that reduced the prospect of its recurrence. Interviewers usually look for employees comfortable acknowledging sup-optimal performance and showing they can be transparent and open to learning. 

As much as this interview exchange highlights a value critical for any job candidate, a leader (supervisor, CEO, COO) needs to take that extra step to see how a failure or malfunction in their organization could have been averted and how to prevent its recurrence. Sports coaches often explain disappointing losses by pointing to the team “being lax on the fundamentals.” Highlighting fundamentals typically leads to rigorous training to refresh basic skills, such as the proper form for passing, kicking, batting, running, shooting, or tackling. 

The organizational leader, too, may find that some failures or misjudgments result from being lax on fundamentals. Does this mean the leader needs to find ways to reinforce the desirable professional behavior? Perhaps, but not always. Many “failures” result from assuming risks that do not play out as hoped. The leader’s role, in this case, might be to reinforce and support the employee for taking a calculated risk that proved unsuccessful. Hopefully, both leader and employee would learn from this undesired outcome and calibrate future risks accordingly. Thus, an unacceptable response is for the leader to claim, “I didn’t know; I wasn’t aware; I didn’t see anything untoward.” But rather: “I authorized this action based on the information we had two months ago, but afterward, I realized that we had neglected to check the calendar to see if a national holiday would delay the delivery.”

Management by Walking Around (MBWA)[3] is one strategy to monitor the organization’s pulse. While this can involve actually walking around the manufacturing floor or at various workstations, it implies engaging in frequent talks with employees at all levels, including unstructured and sometimes unplanned visits. These encounters may expose the leader to critical or seemingly trivial issues that would never have surfaced without directly engaging with the workers. For instance, optimal job performance could be hampered by not replacing broken work tools or the timing of the mid-morning break. The leader’s mission is to minimize unpleasant surprises and seek to be aware of what needs to be changed, retained, or “wait and see.” Hearing no evil and seeing no evil can only lead to unfortunate and inexcusable surprises. 


Career tips:

  • For the manager: Managing by walking around’ may sound like a pastoral stroll in the park, shmoozing and sharing coffee breaks. However, to benefit from this approach, the manager needs to have established an organizational culture that encourages employees to share ideas and observations freely without recrimination. The manager should sharpen his listening skills, ask open questions, and avoid sermonizing. All this takes effort. Anything less than a facilitative environment will make employees feel micro-managed and grilled, only adding to management-employee tension. The undesirable consequence could be that employees would limit themselves to sharing only safe, politically correct, amorphous observations (“OK, we should try harder”) with no illusion of contributing practically to the organization.
  • For the employee: Hear no evil, see no evil, and speak no evil’ implies a challenge for all employees. Employees can face endless dilemmas in the workplace on whether to take a stand against problematic work behavior or look the other way. Workers confront challenging incidents daily. They can range from deciding how to deal with tardy team members to being asked to sign on to a fudged report. Other issues can include office bullying, sexual or racial harassment, and cutting corners on safety regulations. How will your stand affect your reputation, integrity, and credibility in future incidents? Should every deviation from the rule book be challenged, or do you need to pick your battles? Most workers will have their private red line to help them decide when their voice can make a difference and when their lack of action will border on complicity. 
  • Try this: An extreme case of countering company practices is to assume the role of a whistleblower, defined as “anyone who has and reports insider knowledge of illegal activities occurring in an organization.” [4] Many countries are signatories to a United Nations Convention on the issue.[5] The thrust of the Convention is to guarantee protection to the whistleblower, given the individual’s delicate position. As the stakes may be high, it would be best to consult a lawyer proficient in labor and employment law before embarking on this brave journey.

[1] Deuteronomy 21:6–8. 

[2] Deuteronomy 21:7. 

[3] Peters, T. J., & Waterman, R. H., Jr. (1982). In search of excellence: Lessons from America’s best-run companies. Harper & Row. 

[4] Kenton, W. (2021). What is a whistleblower? Investopedia. https://www.investopedia.com/terms/w/whistleblower.asp

[5] Carr, I., & Lewis, D. (2009). Corruption in the work place: Employment law, whistleblower protection and the United Nations Convention against Corruption. SSRN Electronic Journal. 10.2139/ssrn.1505422.

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