01/11/2013 11:22 am ET Updated Mar 13, 2013

The Real Threat: The Ethical Cliff

The high drama of the past months has reached an end. For now, the fiscal cliff has been avoided. Although we know that soon there will be another one. However, how does one compute the toll of worry and anxiety that is has taken on millions of Americans? The stress, the economic concerns, the feeling that Congress does not work in a responsible way has an indelible impact on our national and individual psyche. Our confidence in Congress to do anything is at a nadir.

More serious than the fiscal cliff is the not discussed, the unmentionable, ethical cliff. Have we already gone over that cliff? It is not measurable in dollars and cents but it is possible to assess in terms of how we view society, our leaders, and our beliefs that life can be better. It is noticeable in the actions of people of all ages where one often hears the excuse of "if our leaders do not act in an ethical and responsible manner, why should I?" The comment here is about much more than personal ethical behavior it is really an indictment of our leaders' unwillingness to address the ethical issues that shape society. George Bernard Shaw commented: "Democracy is a device that insures we shall be governed no better than we deserve." It is our responsibility as citizens to show that we deserve better. It is embarrassing how our leaders in DC have acted -- doing everything we would criticize our children for: not getting along, procrastinating, unwilling to compromise and turning in barely acceptable work.

In 1958 the Congress enacted a Code of Ethics for U.S. Government Service which has at first item: "Put loyalty to the highest moral principles and to country above loyalty to Government persons, party, or department." One need not read any further than here to understand the widespread discontent with our political leaders in Washington as well as here in the Bay Area. This basic tenet does not reflect in anyway the behavior we see from many of our congressional leaders.

How does one comport the notion of high moral principles (no matter what your religious or political beliefs might be) with the social reality that we see around the country and for the most part unwillingness to deal in a serious way with so many issues including:

  • A public education system that continues to decline nationally
  • Campaign finance reform that allows corporations and the richest citizens to dominate elections
  • A society where children are not safe in schools, teenagers are not safe in movies and adults are not safe in shopping malls. We need a Congress that is willing to bring into law sensible gun control laws that will stop the killing
  • The climate of bitter bipartisan politics. Congress and all government leaders could set an example of what real civic discourse is about: engaging in the issues of the day in a thoughtful, respectful manner that seeks solutions for the good of the country and not for one's own political career
  • A country where over 40 million human beings go to bed food-insecure every night and so many people live below the poverty line while the richest are only getting richer.

These and so many other issues will not be easy to resolve. Perhaps they are not resolvable. However, what we need to see is men and women in government and in all sectors who are willing to stand with courage and express their commitment to a different kind of discourse -- one which is in the best interest of all Americans. We urgently need bipartisan and values-based convening to address the vexing moral issues of the days. There is no longer time for words and meetings but a need for focused discussions that lead to action items that involve many people.

Our legacy will not be measured by the number of fiscal cliffs we avoid. However, it may very well be assessed by our willingness to address the great ethical issues of the day and the manner in which we addressed them. Perhaps 2013 will deepen our resolve and fortify our willingness to demand of our representative more than they are giving us now; and also allow us to assume our responsibilities as citizens in doing everything humanly possible to address issues of personal and national conscience. Our future is at stake and with honest and civil discourse combined with a fierce commitment to find solutions to the most vexing problems of our time; we can leave behind a world that might just be a bit more safe, just and humane.

Lee Bycel is an educator, humanitarian and the rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom in Napa.