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Affluenza

Friday, 7 February, 2014 - 10:00 am

In a bizarre twist, a life of privilege has become a rationale for failure and getting off the hook.

Ethan Couch, a 16-year-old, pleaded guilty to four counts of intoxication manslaughter for causing a drunken driving crash that killed four and injured two others last year.  Authorities said he had a blood alcohol content of 0.24 — three times the legal limit for an adult — and that he was driving 70 mph in a 40-mph zone. He managed to steal beer from a Walmart and tests also revealed Valium in his system.

The judge sentenced Ethan to a mandatory stint at a residential treatment center for an undisclosed amount of time. But he will do no jail time. Not even in a juvenile detention center.

Media reports point to outrage at his sentence of probation and at the testimony of a psychologist brought by the defense who said that Ethan suffers from “affluenza.” The expert witness argued that his family’s wealth and a dysfunctional relationship with his parents had left Couch without a sense of responsibility.

The argument the defense made was that since his family spoiled him, he had no sense of right and wrong. In this family, the psychologist testified, “if you hurt someone you sent him money” instead of saying you’re sorry.

As one journalist put it, the judge did pretty much what his parents had always done, which is let him skate.

How many other juvenile intoxicated manslaughter convicts have parents that can afford $450,000 a year treatment centers instead of jail time?  When is the last time a judge has said that because your parents are poor and cannot afford to educate you, you are off the hook?

Truth be told, none of those would be acceptable either. And that’s the great tragedy of this story.

What’s truly sad about this case is not only the tragic loss of life, the terrible crime committed and the poor judgment of a judge. It is the sad state of affairs in our culture.  The notion that people no longer need to take responsibility for themselves.

Accountability is critical for all. But it is even more essential for the privileged amongst us.

***

In this week’s parsha, Tetzaveh, we are taught about the sacred attire of the kohanim (priests) in the Mishkan (Tabernacle).  A kohen was only permitted to perform the sacred tasks if he was garbed in the four holy vestments.  The Kohen Gadol (High Priest) was required to wear eight special garments every time he entered the sacred space. His garments were unique and royal, with golden accoutrements.  In fact, it was deemed so important for the Kohen Gadol to receive proper honor that he was required to be a wealthy person. (It was not a criterion for choosing a Kohen Gadol; if he was not previously wealthy, the community would confer this status upon him by gifting him wealth).

Lest you think the excessive honor and wealth of the Kohen Gadol put him above the Law, the Torah demands the opposite.  Regarding sin sacrifices, the Torah stipulates: If any other Jew sins, a sin offering must be made. This sacrifice could be either a goat or a lamb. But if the Kohen Gadol sinned, he was required to offer a bull as his sin offering.

Similarly, when the Kohen Gadol went into the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, he first asked the Almighty for forgiveness for his own sins. Only afterwards did he request atonement for the sins of others.

***

A life of privilege and exalted status does not get us off the hook. It’s quite the contrary. If G-d has seen to it to put me in a position of power, wealth or good fortune – that means He entrusts more of His royal master plan in my hands.  We are all privileged in some way – be it financially, socially, spiritually, health-wise, family-wise or otherwise. The better off we are, the more we ought to scrutinize our lives and hold ourselves to a higher standard.

The next time we realize that we are – at least in some way – more fortunate than someone else, let’s remember that this is G-d’s way of telling us: You are an important partner in perfecting My world, one mitzvah at a time. 

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