The Price of Deception

Recently a young man claiming to be a poor chasan appeared at our door shortly before the onset of Shabbos. I gave him a good-sized contribution. A few minutes later, I went to take out the garbage, and spotted a member of a comedically incompetent group of con-men that has been plaguing our building on Erev Shabbos on the stairs.

On the way to the garbage can, I noticed the con-men’s regular car down the street. I waited under the building, and the “poor chasan” and his accomplice came out of the elevator together, joking and smiling. I approached the “chasan” and demanded that he give me back the money or I would call the police. The two insisted that they had nothing to do with one another, and had only met by chance in the elevator. But the “chasan” grudgingly returned my contribution.

Rather than feeling good about having retrieved my misdirected tzedakah, however, I felt violated. I had wanted to help a poor yeshiva bochur get married. And now I was deprived of my mitzvah.

This incident got me thinking about the corrosive power of lying and cheating. As a consequence of this group’s antics, we are giving differently. New collectors come under a cloud of suspicion, however fleeting, that was never there before. Hopefully, they receive no less than before, but something has been lost.

Dishonesty erodes the fabric that binds any social unit, whether it be the family, a community, or even a nation: trust. Every act of deceit has consequences far beyond its immediate impact; it devalues the basic social currency – the words we speak to one another. Perhaps in recognition of the far-reaching consequences of every lie, the Gemara entertains the possibility that knowingly signing a fraudulent contract also falls under the rule “allow oneself to be killed rather than transgress” – along with murder, idolatry, and immorality (Kesubos 19a).

A visitor from abroad recently brought his son to Rav Ahron Leib Steinman, and asked him what should be the focus of his chinuch. Rav Steinman replied simply: emes. “Separate yourself from every false thing,” (Shemos 23:7) Rav Steinman, was saying, must be the centerpiece of our education of our children, until uttering a falsehood or engaging in deception becomes unthinkable for them. That education involves both the lo lishma (fear of punishment) and the lishma of following the Torah’s command. Constant stories about the exactitude of the Gedolei Yisrael with respect to emes would be one means of bringing out the latter.

Much behavior that would be appalling in adults – standing on tables, refusing to “give Shalom” to the rav — may be perfectly appropriate in a child. But from time that our children are old enough to know the difference between truth and fantasy, we must work to uproot lying.

First, children should understand that lies will inevitably be discovered. As Mark Twain said, “If you tell the truth, you don’t need a good memory.” But lies usually involve a tangled skein of further lies to cover up the original deception. And at some point, they will be found out. Next, our children must learn that the negative consequences of being caught outweigh any possible advantage from the lie.

But far worse than any punishment, they should feel, is the loss of parental trust that comes with being exposed as having lied. The crown of a good name once tarnished is hard to restore to its original lustre.

Rabbi Binyamin Kaminetsky relates how his father Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky instilled in him for life the fear of losing his standing as an upright Jew. Reb Yaakov noticed his son carrying a book that he had been reading on the train between Baltimore and New York, and asked him whether it was his. Reb Binyomin replied that he had borrowed it from the Ner Israel library. But Reb Yaakov was not satisfied with that response, and demanded to know whether he had explicit permission to take the book from the library.

Informed that he did not, Reb Yaakov instructed him to immediately mail it back to Ner Israel. “All your life you have learned in yeshivos and soon you will receive semichah,” Reb Yaakov told his son. “Yet if anything happens to this book before you return it, you will be disqualified as a witness in a Jewish court. . . . Does it really pay for 75 cents to change your entire halachic status?”
The only way to instill in our children the concept that lying is a dvar mius (something disgusting) is by modeling that attitude ourselves. We sow destruction when we involve our children in deceit – e.g., telling the stranger at the door that their father is not home – or let them witness less than honest behavior on our part. An expert in dealing with “children at risk” once told me that the best protection against the phenomenon is for children never to see their parents engaged in various shtiklach.

Unless deceitfulness is uprooted early on the habit of cutting corners for momentary gain can come to pervade every aspect of one’s life. Reb Yaakov once threw a student out of Torah Vodaas for allowing another student to copy his answers on the New York State Regents Exam. Decades later the same person was caught in a front-page financial scandal. Reb Yaakov laid the blame on those institutions that had been too quick to accept him after his expulsion and had treated his cheating on a government exam as inconsequential. Had they not done so, Reb Yaakov commented acerbically, he might have learned that cheating is something serious.

Citizens of Israel are now experiencing what happens when a whole society is comprised of people who have not learned midvar sheker tirchak. Senior ministers, including the prime minister, the heads of the Income Tax Authority, the person in charge of combating corruption in the Civil Service Commissioner’s office, and half a dozen other leading figures are either under suspicion of criminal fraud, being actively investigated, or already on trial.

Joe Citizen starts to wonder why he should pay taxes, when rich businessmen are able to influence the appointment of cronies in the Income Tax Authority. And even worse, he wonders how he can entrust his son to the IDF, after the former Chief of Staff has charged that the ground operations belatedly commenced in the final two days of the war in Lebanon, in which more than thirty Jewish soldiers were killed, was nothing more than a “spin operation” designed to bolster the Prime Minister’s low poll numbers.

A country in which citizens have no more trust in their leaders’ ability to place the national welfare above their personal gain has truly lost its way.

Originally appeared in Mishpacha magazine.

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10 Responses

  1. Dr. E says:

    While the focus of the piece obviously deals with emess and yashrus, the premise cannot be ignored. That is tzedaka collectors becoming not only far too ubiquitous but sometimes demanding and brazen (“magiah li”). Tzedaka collection is a sort of public trust for which well meaning donors are being taken advantage of more and more as the volume of collectors and letters soar. How many donors have given money to collectors only to whiff cigarette smoke as the collector moves on to canvas the room? So, the pathetic story which preys on our sympathies turns out to merely be a conduit for a nicotine habit and a support for lifelong underemployment.

    The reference of the “chassan” collecting on his own behalf (and the knee-jerk reaction of giving under that pretense) has got to make one realize how broken the system is. Why is someone in such a situation? Why is he a “chassan” if he cannot support a kallah and family? (And why does that not raise a red flag?) There is a whole subculture out there that collecting for oneself or one’s family is no longer a last resort, but is “Plan B”–when in reality there really wasn’t any viable Plan A. This is not emess and yashrus either. Sometimes this is due to lack of parental direction, sometimes it is unrealistic expectations set up by the yeshivos. This applies not only to those who shnorr, but it’s indicative of an attitude and wordview that has become the norm even in better economic circumstances.

    Of course, there are certainly some truly unfortunate cases where we need to step up to the plate. And it’s a real shame that the charletans and deadbeats out there have created a climate of cynicism towards a mitzva as central as tzedaka.

    Let the giver beware.

  2. Joel Rich says:

    I couldn’t agree more but is there any cognitive dissonance between this dedication to complete truth and a popular philosophy articulated by Rabbi Shimon Schwab as quoted by Rabbi J. J. Schacter “There is a vast difference between history and storytelling. History must be truthful otherwise it does not deserve its name…. What ethical purpose is served by preserving a realistic historic picture? Nothing but the satisfaction of curiosity. We should tell ourselves and our children the good memories of the good people…What is gained by pointing out their inadequacies…? We want to be inspired by their example…”?


  3. Yisrael Moshe says:

    R. Rosenblum,

    I can’t thank you enough for pointing out the overwhelming faults of those who control the Israeli Government.

    It bothers me to no end the way these so called leaders routinely lie bold faced to the Israeli public with impunity.

    And your point about the trickle down effect is so important. Leaders set the tone of a country, and when they lie, it becomes acceptable day-to-day discourse for an entire country.

    I apologize for essentially repeating what you wrote in the article without having something unique to add, but it is therapeutic to know that I am not the only one who thinks this way. It’s good to know that I am not crazy.

  4. yoelb says:

    Yisrael Moshe

    I think you may have left out a level. Rabbonim set the tone, and when even a small percentage of rabbis and others wearing the uniform of the frum game the system, or even, G-d forbid commit outright fraud or act like thugs… The world sees it.

    Terrible things flow from religious leaders who aren’t what they ought to be. It was when the High Priest died that people went home from the Cities of Refuge; negligent homicide was laid at the door of the High Priest who didn’t set the right tone.

    What is the power of a bad example, of bad publicity? When I first went into practice I was told that if a client has a really good experience with your services on average they will tell three or four people; if they have a bad one they will tell everybody they know.

  5. Aaron says:

    “Citizens of Israel are now experiencing what happens when a whole society is comprised of people who have not learned midvar sheker tirchak.”

    Do lies include making demands on others in order to live beyond one’s means?

    Perhaps if gedolim would send their own adult children to communities where the cost of living was 1/3 that of J-lem, Boro Park or Monsey, it would be possible for families to live a modest Torah life that isn’t such a financial hardship where the baal habatim work overtime so that they have to delegate “v’shinantam livanecha” to others and slave to enrich mortgage companies and caterers? What about choosing a community where a baal habayit can work a regular day and come home with a little bit of energy left for his family and fit in a seder for learning?

    Moreover, cities where haredim are concentrated are especially overflowing with geysers flowing with the values we try to eschew. Why not consider neo-shtetlism away from billboards and urban ethics? Such a movement can’t begin with baal habatim who will be stigmatized. It would require a Torah leader to LEAD by example.

    Perhaps maybe an edict against hiring the golddigging boys who come out of yeshivas where the roshei yeshiva encourage demanding exorbitant dowries to accompany the edict against attending weddings with more than 400 guests. “Average” kollel boys are worth a dowry of half a house and a stipend from the in-laws? Puh-leeze. That Borsalino is made of tissue paper.

    Why is a “working boy” who is serious about learning promoted as inferior “husband material” by haredi leaders?

    In a class of 100 kollel boys, if the rosh yeshiva can’t quantify the difference between the 12th in his class and the 27th so that independent outsiders can judge, please explain to me how the kollel “system” is _not_ smoke and mirrors. And are boys ranked #41 through #100 really entitled to being fully supported? Or maybe they should do something akin to work-study, apprenticed to the Zevuluns in the community to help mikadesh the level of commerce we practice?

    And while we’re talking about dishonesty, what would Reb Yaacov Kaminetsky have said to Jews who use pirated software to write their Divrei Torah?

  6. Ori Pomerantz says:

    There is also a “trickle up” effect. Some types of dishonesty are endemic to Israeli society, which makes it easier for the politicians to think they will be able to get away with things. The problem is that once you start accepting some dishonesty, it’s hard to draw the line.

  7. Ori Pomerantz says:

    In relation to the article Aaron cited, may I quote Pirkey Avot 4:7? רבי צדוק אומר, …, ולא קורדום לחפור בהם: – Rabbi Tzadoc said: don’t make them [words of Torah] … a shovel to dig.

    Gdoley Israel might be able to live without luxuries. However, most of us need shovels. Isn’t there a risk that a Torah only curriculum would result in young men who are lacking the means to support their family except for Torah, and therefore would be forced to commit this sin? Isn’t that a case of putting a stumbling block in front of the blind?

    I am not Charedi, so I may be missing something critical here. If so, could you please tell me what?

  8. GB says:

    One of the main reasons we made yerida (and there are many like us) is that living in Israel one is forced to compromise one’s emes, whether exchanging dollars on the black market or cheating on taxes, etc. etc. which is not something we were willing to do nor did we wish to expose our children to this type of game-playing. I admire those who are stronger than the system, but tzaddikim are very few and far between.

  9. Aaron says:

    GB, I almost made aliyah with my family but I found that “becoming Israeli” came at the expense of emes, as you said. Yes, there were some specific mitzvos I could only acquire there, but I came to the conclusion that my aliyah would only be successful if I could remain what jaded Israelis would call a “freier” and have a US-based business that I could perform from a home office, there. Currently working toward that goal. I need and want to be insulated from the arbitrary bureaucracy and crushing socialism. I have no stomach for haggling and have problems with haggling hashkafically (Two people buying the same item pay different prices because one can haggle harder or wear down the seller? There’s a tinge of gneivah there. Better system is for a proprietor to put price stickers on goods and adjust the price based on the traffic. It eliminates the whole issue of gneivas daas that we are cautioned against as the potential buyer never has to ask and engage in the uncomfortable process of negotiation.)

  10. dovid says:

    Aharon: “…what would Reb Yaacov Kaminetsky have said to Jews who use pirated software to write their Divrei Torah?”

    He may have said: mitzvah habah b’averah.

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