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Great headline in this morning’s paper:  “Integrity test can still yield surprises.”  While I contemplated the concept of testing for integrity (what would an integrity test look like?  what if a test-taker managed to cheat?) I looked at the article and discovered that the integrity in question was the performance of the new cap that BP placed on the blown oil well in the Gulf of Mexico.

It got me thinking about integrity.  And the idea that testing the integrity of things is a hell of a lot easier than testing a person’s integrity.  You can test things like an oil well cap with scientific measurements and alogorithms.  Personal integrity is another matter entirely. 

According to Wikipedia (sorry – I’m being lazy today) one definition of integrity is: “a concept of consistency of actions, values, methods, measures, principles, expectations and outcomes.”  Using that definition is a slippery slope — according to that, Bernie Madoff acted with great integrity.

Wikipedia then elaborates:

The word “integrity” stems from the Latin adjective integer (whole, complete).   In this context, integrity is the inner sense of “wholeness” deriving from qualities such as honesty and consistency of character.  As such, one may judge that others “have integrity” to the extent that one judges whether they behave according to the values, beliefs and principles they claim to hold.  In discussions on behavior and morality, one view of the property of integrity sees it as the virtue of basing actions on an internally-consistent framework of principles.

Which still leaves us with the idea that, essentially,  integrity equals consistency.  And we all know that it’s easy to be consistently evil.  It does let us off the hook about Bernie Madoff, because he was dishonest about his actions.  Someone like Sarah Palin, however, passes both tests — she’s perfectly honest about her beliefs and fairly consistent.  And yet… she does not strike me as a person having integrity.  Maybe it’s because there’s a malicious undercurrent to the way she communicates her beliefs. 

One person who strikes me as having great integrity — in the best sense of the word — is my friend Charles Silberman, who sent me a lovely note about sacred time and the power of sacred moments. He wrote:  

Re sacred space: sacred time – more precisely, perhaps, sacred moments – have been more meaningful than sacred places. Several instances come to mind. The Friday after my cancer surgery in 1988, for example, Arlene got electric candlesticks from the chaplain’s office at New York Hospital and brought grape juice, wine cups, and challah; “lighting” the candles, chanting kiddush, and making a motzi were enormously life-enhancing. Another moment also stays with me. My father died erev Sukkot, just before sunset. Before the rabbi left, he told my brother, mother, and me that we were obliged to light candles, chant kiddush, etc. … I thought [the rabbi] was crazy, but we followed his instructions, and it, too, was life-sustaining.

My favorite sacred moment, the time that I experienced transcendence in the fullest sense of the word, was on Siesta Key beach on a cold January day 11 years ago.  Paul, the girls and I were the only ones there.  Sarah Jane and Ellie were 7 and 5 years old, and they ran back and forth across the deserted sand, testing the water with their fingers and shrieking with delight.  Paul trailed along behind them while I sat in a beach chair, wrapped in a blanket, and watched them, watched the waves, watched the sky and the clouds and the sand.  I didn’t think.  I had just learned that I had advanced breast cancer, and would have a biopsy the next day and begin chemotherapy soon after.  The surgeon had given us the news in the direst terms; stage four, lymph nodes clearly involved, etc. 

As I sat on the beach and shivered in the cold, I knew with complete certainty that I believed in God.   I knew that whatever happened, God would be with me.  I could never be alone.  Whether I lived or died was irrelevant, and for that matter, continues to be so.   As long as I live my life well, set a good example for my daughters and serve my community, I am doing God’s work and am in God’s graces.  Whatever happens, good or bad.

Whenever I have doubts about my ability to believe in God and to become a rabbi, I think it will behoove me to revisit that hour on the beach.