Guest Posting From Chabakuk Elisha - Honesty
It’s incredible. Hardly a week goes bye that I don’t hear someone express shock, outrage or misery about how some charedi (which actually means “one who fears G-d” but is colloquial for “ultra-orthodox” person) participated in some kind of unethical financial dealing. It’s old news, and it gets plenty of air-time, and we humans like to focus on hypocrisy (we each have are own motives for that). But this ‘disconnect’ between religious life and financial dealings is indeed outrageous, sad, and hard to make peace with.
There is a laundry list of reasons for its existence, and we could (and many people do) discuss it endlessly, constantly adding new reasons to the list. But, I wanted to focus on one of them that I find especially troublesome:
Education. Children of all cultures pick up the (unstated) values that they see when they are raised, and this is the bottom-line reason for this decidedly improper and unethical behavior. So they learn that turning on the light on Shabbos is a serious “no, no” – but defrauding the government or bending the rules for a dollar is not a big deal. I don’t’ know if the story is true, but I have heard it told on more than one occasion:
Someone once asked a certain Rosh Yeshiva (in America) if he could buy a house in a relative’s name (I don’t recall the specific advantage this person had in mind, but by doing so he would benefit financially), or if it would be considered fraud and improper for a frum Jew. This Rosh Yeshiva responded, "There is no mitzva to waste Jewish money."
Even as a child I found this lesson outrageous. But it seems to me that there is a problem in the Yeshivos themselves, I call it “di grobbe finger.” Di grobbe finger is the thumb, and it’s heavily used in a swinging motion when one expresses their exciting Talmudic logic. It’s an emphasis; it emphasizes their intellectual “gotchya” or “see how smart I am” or “how brilliant this idea is”. Yeshivos teach our kids that intellect is prime, and the greater the mind, the more vaunted the status. This creates a culture that values out-smarting, one-upping, and avoiding the pedestrian thinking “straight arrow.” There is even a derogatory name for the simple, honest, and straight thinking Jew: He’s a “Grude Mechel” (Straight Mike), and something you should never be.
Why or how does this make sense, when we are trying to teach Torah values? It is indisputable that honesty is the core of Yiddishkeit, and Torah = Emes, so where did the Emes go?
Let’s look for a second at the Torah paradigm for truth: Yaakov. Chazal tell us that Yaakov is the embodiment of truth – but indeed we find that it would seem (at face value) that Yaakov had to employ some questionable methods. The two primary examples for this are his means of receiving the brochos from his blind father Yitzchok, and his manipulation of Lavan’s flock – stacking the odds in his favor, insuring that he would walk away from his father-in-law quite wealthy (at Lavan’s expense).
One fellow once told me that this is the mekor for “not-exactly-honest” financial dealings. I don’t want to get into how ridiculous and disgusting that is, but the question that is raised is interesting – so, I figure it’s worth addressing:
Case 1: The Brochos.
Yitzchok wants Eisav and Yaakov to be a team: Eisav will support Yaakov and Yaakov will spend his time busy with spiritual pursuits. Rivka recognizes that this is impossible, so she acts quickly before the material brochos go to Eisav (who will use them for evil). Yitzchok had already dispatched Eisav on his mission with the promise of the brochos upon his return, so Rivka has little time – otherwise, she would have had a sit down meeting with Yitzchok and gone about this affair completely differently. But as it stands, Eisav could return at any moment.
Rivka impresses upon Yaakov to go get the brochos in Eisav’s stead, but Yaakov isn’t too excited about it. He even expresses concern that going about this seemingly deceptive approach will end up bad. But Rivka quickly explains that there is no time, and that if Yaakov listens to her he will see that this is the proper approach – and not dishonest – and if she is wrong, it will be her problem.
Yaakov proceeds; and we get to the “deception” with the words, “Anochi, Eisav bechorecha” (I am, Eisav your first born); asisi kaasher dibarta eilai (I have done as you asked me). Now this seems like a dishonest response, and I don’t recommend trying it in court, but meforshim explain the truth of his words:
“I am the Eisav that you had planned to bless, because Eisav who despised his birthright, and indeed he sold it to me, granting me his role as your firstborn in the family.” Essentially Yaakov is now both Eisav and Yaakov, and he is asking for what is his; the fact that Eisav may return at any moment, forces them to take the most efficient approach – but not for the sake of deception.
Then Yaakov continues, “I have done as though you asked me.” In Hebrew the word ka’asher can mean “as” or “as though,” indeed Yaakov’s intention was the later, and Yitzchok is not deceived – he fully understands the situation – as we see by the following verse: “And Yitzchok said to Yaakov” – he understands full well that he is now speaking to Yaakov, and that Yaakov’s claim is legitimate. (There is also an interesting linguistic comparison between Yaakov’s choice of the word “anochi” as opposed to Eisav’s later statement where he uses the word “ani,” but we’ll leave that for another time.)
Case 2: Lavan.
At first glance it seems that Yaakov, in Parshas Vayeitzei, develops a system to rip-off Lavan by manipulating the heard in his favor. But a careful reading of the psukim, will display that Yaakov isn’t the crook at all:
Yaakov worked for Lavan for 21 years. In that time he worked without sleep and with complete honesty, turning Lavan from a pauper into a very wealthy man. In exchange, Yaakov was granted his 2 wives, and an agreement that would give Yaakov a flock of animals for himself. The agreement was that Yaakov will give Lavan all the white animals, while the spotted, etc, he would keep for himself. Lavan agrees, but proceeds to steal all of Yaakov’s colored animals, and he removes them from the heard. (I know that I’m going to get into trouble with Rashi here, but I like the Malbim’s way of learning the passuk better – it seems to fit the words and the story more logically.) Now, Lavan chuckles to himself, Yaakov will have no spotted animals to breed, and Yaakov will have nothing.
Yaakov knows, however, that these animals are not pure-bred; although they are white, they have many spotted, striped and colored ancestors. He devises a system that by placing spotted, striped and colored sticks in water the animals will see the reflection of spotted, striped and colored animals while mating – and this will cause the animals to have a higher percentage of non-white animals. Again, Yaakov has avoided being completely ripped-off by Lavan, and has ended up with his fair share.
But ask a Yeshiva boy and they’ll probably tell you that Yaakov tricked Yitzchok but didn’t lie; in all likelihood they’ll say (based on Rashi) that Yaakov said “I am [Yaakov]. Eisav [is your] your firstborn.” Basically, that Yaakov pulled a fast one, but didn’t technically lie (…it depends on what the definition of “is” is). And they’ll probably tell you that there isn’t anything wrong with Yaakov manipulating the odds at Lavan’s expense – he was just making a smart business decision.
I have always felt that the message commonly taught was so incomplete; and it’s such a warped lesson! If we want moral, ethical and honest children, we must teach them morality ethics and honesty. It must pervade our culture. In truth, it must pervade our self.