“The Eye Sees, The Ear Hears” (Avot 2:1)

A few years ago, one of my congregants told me the following story: while in a supermarket she overheard an exchange between a non-Jewish mother and child. The mother had apparently caught the child attempting to shoplift a candy bar.  She slapped the child’s hand and admonished him severely: “We do not steal!” My congregant anticipated that this moment would be seized by the mother as a wonderful opportunity to broach with her young child the concept of values, morality, and decency. The mother, however, explained to her child: “We do not steal! Don’t you see there are cameras all around the store? If you steal, you will get caught and go to jail. Is that what you want?”

Chalk that up as a missed opportunity. But is this very approach not uncommon in our community, as well?  How often do we communicate that the real crime is not the illicit behavior, but rather getting caught (or worse: the real crime is getting caught and implicating others in order to receive more lenient treatment)?

What the mother neglected to convey was any sense of a higher morality. And what is too often missing from our world is the reality that G-d is watching – that there really is a Master of the Universe who dictated His morality to us, that our personal perfection is measured by our ethical attainments in relation to our fellow man, and that there is reward and punishment for same.

Have we become too “sophisticated” to think in those terms? Is the awareness that “Hashem is here, Hashem is there, Hashem is truly everywhere” relegated only to songs for children? We might struggle to sense G-d’s presence during tefila, and occasionally succeed, but too often we have left any consciousness of G-d in shul or the Bet Midrash, and His reality is missing from our workplaces and in our dealings with money. Perhaps we were better off when we were less sophisticated, and just lived with emunah peshutah.

An elderly Chafetz Chaim is reported to have been sitting apprehensively, even tormented, and when questioned he explained that he was worried about his final judgment. He noted that having published and sold many books in his lifetime,  perhaps he was culpable for mistakes that he or the proofreader had not caught. Or that the binding on some of the volumes was inferior. “And in Heaven I will be asked how this can possibly be justified. Those book sales were a mikach ta’ut, and I will owe money to people whom I cannot repay. Surely I must recognize that these concerns are not simply scholarly musings about civil law and liabilities, but whether I will have to walk through the fires of Gehinnom because I stole money from another person (Kovetz Maamarim, Rav Elchanan Wasserman, Volume 2, page 76).

It is helpful, although not essential, to anticipate our eventual punishment for sin in such a graphic way. But even short of that, it suffices to recognize the grave harm caused to our quest for moral perfection by our indifference to theft or our lust for other people’s property.  For many people, challenges to their integrity would be rectified upon internalizing “I have set G-d before me always” (Tehillim 16:8) and the application of that formula to our daily lives. One who is constantly aware of G-d’s presence cannot sin. Utilizing tefilla as a vehicle to reconnect with G-d and His moral code – especially Mincha, in the middle of the work day – instead of just perceiving the act of prayer as the fulfillment of an obligation – a verbal quota that must be satisfied daily – could help in this regard. A “shiviti” sign on one’s desk or the study of Torah during breaks might serve as a similar reminders. In Rav Soloveitchik’s formulation, one reciting vidui should pound his chest at “lefanecha,” “for the sin committed before You,” because every sin is a denial that we are in G-d’s presence. That distance from G-d –the chasm brought about through fraudulent conduct – is another form of Gehinnom and can induce even more misbehavior.

“A person is recognized through three things: his cup, his pocket, and his anger”(Eruvin 65b). That is to say, one’s true character emerges firstly when he is under the influence of alcohol, thirdly when his emotions are running wild – and secondly when he is doing business with other people, and whether or not he deals honestly with them. We need to realize that how we treat money, people, businesses, partners, clients, government, investors, employers and employees is also part of our divine service, and perhaps even the defining element of our divine service.

As noted, none of these issues are new to Jewish life. The Talmud teaches that “most people are guilty of theft, a minority is guilty of sexual sins, and everyone succumbs to some form of evil talk” (Bava Batra 165a). Rav Yisrael Salanter perceived in the juxtaposition of the first two transgressions the necessity for similar safeguards. “Just like it is forbidden to seclude oneself with another man’s wife because of a fear of sin, so too it is forbidden to seclude oneself with another man’s money for fear of theft; in fact, it is an even more stringent requirement, as few surrender to sexual immorality but most people are guilty of theft” (Cited in Tenuat Hamussar (Rav Dov Katz), Volume 1, Page 358).

Apparently, Chazal recognized that the temptation to take liberties with someone else’s money – by stealing, cheating, cutting corners, employing shtick and the like – is too great to resist. It is a failing to which the “majority” succumb. That, of course, is meant as a challenge to us and not a rationalization.

If it sounds like the Jewish people could use a renaissance of the Mussar movement (such as the one pioneered by Rav Salanter) in terms of recognizing our obligations in G-d’s world towards Him and towards each other, and in terms of making the reality of G-d a tangible presence in every aspect of our lives – so be it. It is long overdue. Yeshivot must be especially sensitive to teaching Seder Nezikin or Choshen Mishpat and leaving the impression that neither is applicable to modern life but represents an idyllic vision of conduct best suited to angels. Rabbis in shuls should make pursuit of integrity a consistent theme in their drashot and shiurim, and as something realistic and expected and not merely aspirational or the realm of tzadikim. That can only be done by the study of the great mussar works – Chovot Halevavot, Mesilat Yesharim, Orchot Tzadikim, etc.. And something else.

We need to stigmatize criminal or unethical conduct. The offender should feel the disdain of the community, much like the spouse or child abuser is (or should be) scorned. Granted, it is not always simple in practice, as often the spouse and children of the offender are innocent and need public support. But they can be supported financially and/or emotionally without needing to wear ethical blinders or minimizing the gravity of the offense. Ethical lapses that presage a criminal bent – e.g., not paying employees on time – should be pointed out to the offender in a direct way with the expectation that the matter be rectified immediately.

Part of the reason why unethical conduct has not been stigmatized is the execrable correlation in Jewish life of money and honor. Money plays too dominant a role in Jewish life, and gives too much standing to those who donate it. As organizations depend on money as their lifeblood, and as organizations proliferate in Jewish life, more and more attention is paid to who gives and how much, and there is less and less interest in the provenance of that money. We need to end the kesef=kavod equation, even if that is easier said than done. Honor should be bestowed on people who exemplify good values, and not those who merely possess large portfolios.

Additionally, the undue emphasis on results and status rather than process unwittingly (or wittingly?) leads teenagers to conclude that their parents would rather have them cheat their way into the Ivy League than succeed on their own in some lesser academic clime. Parents should impart to children that virtue matters more to them than scholastic or material success. On the other side of the spectrum, parents do a disservice when they choose an educational protocol for their children that leaves them incapable of earning a decent, honest living. Worse, they fulfill the Talmudic injunction: “whoever does not teach his child a profession (or trade) teaches him thievery” (Masechet Kiddushin 29a).

It is simply mindboggling that in part of our world that boasts of its meticulous fidelity to the Torah this mandate is routinely and widely ignored. Parents who do not provide their children with the education or skills needed to support themselves have failed in one of the most essential aspects of parenting.

Modern life has also presented an especially critical dilemma that undoubtedly plays a significant role in much of the low-level deception that occurs in Jewish life. Cheating on taxes is rampant in American life in all sectors of society, attributable to simple greed, discontent with government, and even occasionally the arcana or unfairness of the tax laws. The acquisition of money as a desideratum in its own right, together with the power and prestige that riches often bring to the holder, leads even extraordinarily wealthy people to connive for even more. But in our world, the cost of living a Jewish life is obscenely expensive and also plays a role in inducing moral mischief. We are simply living beyond our means and beyond normalcy. There are families with children in yeshiva elementary and high schools that are paying over six figures in tuition. Few can sustain that. Conversely, those elements of Jewish life that are perceived as “necessities” (clearly, some are but many aren’t) – yeshiva tuition, summer camp, Pesach in a hotel, Yom Tov expenses, clothing, vacations, residence in communities with a crushing real property tax burden, the need to maintain appearances among one’s friends, neighbors and peers, et al – all place tremendous pressure on the bread-winner. In fact, to maintain our lifestyle, being a bread-winner is not enough; one has to own a successful chain of bakeries.

That pressure often eventuates in the corner-cutting that usually heralds some ethical lapse. And so we need to reduce our material footprint in the world. Rav Shlomo Efraim Lunschitz, the Kli Yakar (Devarim 2:3), famously lambasted his generation (16th-17th century Prague) for their materialistic excesses that contributed nothing to their spiritual lives and aroused the jealousy of the non-Jewish world. “Vihamaskilim yavinu likach mussar,” and the intelligent will draw the appropriate lessons from it. Much unethical conduct is prompted by the need to sustain fancy houses, cars, clothing, and vacations – and the image that is engendered by it –with a percentage sliced off for tzedaka as a salve for the conscience and to further bolster that image.

Finally, and this pains me to write, I have heard too often from people that “we are entitled” because of the historical injustices inflicted on the Jewish people. The entitlement mentality currently entices most Americans (there is even a faux legal defense for misconduct termed “affluenza,” a condition which allegedly induces the wealthy and especially their children into risky, self-indulgent and criminal behavior), but has an especially pernicious manifestation for Jews. The argument goes something like this: “They murdered us and plundered our assets during the Holocaust, the Communists cheated, robbed, persecuted and enslaved us. We are entitled. It is payback time.” In other words – if I understand the argument correctly – the historical injustice of the maltreatment of innocent European Jews by Christians and Communists can be (partially) rectified by the deceptions practiced on innocent Americans by American Jews.  The argument is rooted in the considerations that all governments are the same, that the Czar is the Kaiser is the President, that autocratic monarchies are the same as constitutional republics, and – most pertinent – that there is no Torah that governs Jewish conduct. As such, the argument is a moral travesty, notwithstanding that it serves, for some, as a rationalization for misbehavior vis-à-vis one’s obligations towards the general society.

“Every talmid chacham (scholar, and for these purposes it has been observed, all religious Jews qualify as “scholars”) whose inside is not as his outside is not a true scholar… He is even called abominable” (Yoma 72b). Piety cannot be measured in the spheres of public worship or private scholarship while morality in private or money matters is deficient. As the Gemara there continues, it bespeaks a lack of reverence of Heaven, an utter disregard of G-d. “Woe to the … Torah scholars who are engaged in Torah study but have no awe of Heaven…Alas for the one who does not own a courtyard (i.e., has no fear of Heaven) but makes a gate for the courtyard (i.e., Torah study).” For some, the Torah is the elixir of life; for others, it is the drug of death, because its study can cause one to have an inflated sense of self, promote the haughtiness that the rules don’t all apply to him because he has made a unique arrangement with the Creator, and thereby deaden the ethical impulses that Torah study usually animates. Such is the inevitable result of Torah study (and observance of Mitzvot) without Yir’at Shamayim.

The entire Torah system is the vehicle that G-d gave us to perfect our souls and to have us gain eternal life. Money, of all things, can never be allowed to become an impediment to those goals. To avert that personal catastrophe, we must re-stigmatize criminality, take forceful measures to avoid temptation, learn mussar, moderate our materialistic pursuits, decentralize the role of money in Jewish life, shatter the kesef=kavod equation, teach our children that ethical greatness is the accomplishment we most value, eschew the historical rationalizations for misbehavior, and, above all, cultivate a pervasive sense that G-d is watching us. Because He is.

That closeness to G-d will then be the defining element of our Avodat Hashem in all its diverse contexts and foster our natural inclinations for righteousness. And we will yet merit that “the remnant of Israel will not act corruptly nor speak any falsehood…and I will make you into a good name and for praise among all the peoples of the earth” (Tzefania 3:13, 20).

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7 responses to ““The Eye Sees, The Ear Hears” (Avot 2:1)

  1. “this pains me to write, [but] I have heard too often from people that “we are entitled” because of the historical injustices inflicted on the Jewish people.”

    Well, I don’t know if it assuages you any, Rabbi, but I myself have never in my life heard such a ridiculous argument, and my religious family runs the gamut from Bnei Brak to Williamsburg/Monroe to Lakewood to (when work on house is finished) Bnai Yeshurun, Teanek. I’ve never seen that in print, either. So it cannot be a very widespread argument, thankfully. But I do hear, all the time, the related argument that the goyim hate us anyway, because its a halacha (most don’t compare the version in the Yalkut MS) and so why should we care what they think? ואם הלכה למעשה כל גויים של היום אפילו נוצרים ישרים והגונים, נחשבים כסתם “עכו”ם” כאילו האלפיים שנים האחרונים לא עברו כלל וכולם עדיין אדוקים בע”ז ועדיין כל גוי בבחנת מורידין ולא מעלין וכו’ – well, can you blame them for thinking that way?

  2. ********************************************************************
    Are Jews repeating the mistake of the Ancient Romans?
    ********************************************************************

    “Social status [in ancient Rome] was defined in part by the food served at a banquet.

    The more numerous, varied and expensive the dishes a host served, the more impressive he seemed to his guests.

    It was not unusual, therefore, for some people to spend more than they could afford on food for such occasions, causing them to go into debt.”

    SOURCE: The Roman Empire,
    chapter 3, page 35, by Don Nardo, year 2006 CE.

  3. (I do not look or dress religious looking.) My own personal experience in dealings with the “visually appearing ‘religious’ Jews” (beards, sometimes long payos, black hats and clothing, tzitzis hanging out) has been dismaying. My impression: they are obsessed with which hashgacha is on their hot dogs but have little concern about the honesty and integrity of their business dealings. I once asked one character how he could halachically justify an obvious business deception. His reply was it was on Umid gimmel of his Gemara. I have often asked if they had forgotten to take off their Purim costume; Purim has been long over. This bad experience has been so prevalent for me that I prefer dealing with secular or “goyim”. I now trust little the black hat “charedi” looking people.

  4. Bravo! All very well stated, compellingly and movingly argued. I don’t think there’s a “big picture” statement that you’ve made that I have any remote disagreement with.

    I’m not sure, however, that your specifics are exactly what is required. Mussar is wonderful, but the specific texts that you mention are challenging, involve complicated (and possibly outdated) mystical and philosophical concepts, and were never intended for mass consumption. I’d love to see yeshivot teach these texts with the same fervor as they do gemara, but even then it would be a challenge to promote their visions in a contemporary society (although if you found me a yeshiva that was up for that challenge, I’ve got a few prospective students waiting).

    I’m most curious what solutions you would propose for alleviating the financial burden of contemporary Jewish life, as this is the single most pressing issue that I personally find myself and many of peers fighting. To be blunt: a median-income Jewish household cannot afford the expected median Jewish life, regardless of how much shedding of luxuries one does. Should we be promoting significantly decreased family size? Alternative educational arrangements (homeschooling, public schooling with supplemental religious education)? Alternative living arrangements (communal/multi-generational homes)? Simply preaching “live within your means” is very good and appropriate, but figuring out a largely-applicable (never mind universally applicable) means for people to do so seems frustratingly impossible, at least to my humble mind.