Monday Morning in Jerusalem

One morning about a year ago, I got a call from a distraught friend. She had been working for a few months as the secretary of a tzedaka organization, and had just discovered that none of the funds had been used to “benefit needy children,” as claimed by the public relations brochure she herself had helped produce. The money had been going into the director’s pocket, who later explained himself by saying that his family, too, was in dire need.

So ashamed was she that ever since her discovery, the woman had been in a depression. Frum from birth, she said that what had broken her was not only the discovery itself, but the reactions she’d gotten from two other frum Jews. The first, a close friend, had suggested she help the director set up a bona fide organization.

“But all this time he was lying to me, and getting me to steal for him! How can I continue working with him?”

Her friend seemed inadequately horrified.

She then consulted a neighbor who is a rabbi. He told her that for guidance she should go to a posek, but in his opinion — since he knew that her family, too, was in difficult financial straits –perhaps she shouldn’t quit until she found another job.

What? Even though he knowingly involved me in ganeiva?”

“Just until you find other work.”

So she was struggling to get her bearings, spiritually speaking. And on my end of this phone call, I was going through my own reactions.

One of the lessons I’ve been dealt in life — and it was my good fortune to receive it in a devastating, major manner not once, not twice, but three times over a twenty-year period, since it took me a while to get the message — was that in this world there are people who lie.

I’d known there was such a thing, of course. I wasn’t unaware, growing up, of the dictionary definition. But aside from the Watergate Scandal, outright liars didn’t turn up, in any way I was aware of. I never had to sift through my parents’ words like a gold-digger, panning for the real thing.

Far be it from me to play down the fact that the secular world of my childhood was bankrupt, lacking as it did certain essential features, namely 1) my Jewish identity (otherwise known as “myself,”) and 2) education regarding Ha Kodesh Boruch Hu. But one thing, one central thing, I could rely on without thinking: my parents didn’t lie. It didn’t even occur to me to imagine life otherwise.

Never in this case didn’t mean sometimes. It didn’t mean occasional white lies are understandable and sometimes necessary. It means: lying isn’t one of your options. Have you done something wrong? Say so. (And stealing? Stealing wasn’t even on the radar screen.) Did my parents instruct me verbally to this effect? Did they ever have to punish me for a lie? I’m sure they must have, but of that I have no recollection. Lying was just something they wouldn’t have` countenanced. They themselves would have been shamed – it would have been beneath their dignity — for their children to violate the integrity of words. It would have been dishonorable, abhorrent, a cowardly breach of an unspoken covenant.

Since I could take it for granted that my parents spoke the truth as they saw it, truth was the foundation of my childish universe, the way it’s supposed to be. So although I didn’t know what to call Him, or how to call Him, or even that it was possible to call Him, Hashem’s unnamed existence was palpable. My parents’ truthfulness was consistent with His Presence.

Only years later would I learn the reason for this: Emes is one of His names.

Such innocence is undeniably beautiful. But it can also be deadly, if one isn’t prepared for the fact that the world of men (and women) is as full of lies as the proverbial pomegranate is full of seeds. The innocence is doubly deadly, and doubly enlightening, if (as was the case with me, it shames me to say) one’s introductory experiences with the phenomenon of lying are received as a baalat-teshuva, at the hands of three Orthodox brethren. In their confidence that they were on G-d’s side and He on theirs, they considered themselves above some details of the law, both halachic and civil.

Whenever a self-proclaimed religious individual – regardless of which faith — commits a crime, the reaction is one of repugnance and scorn for the discrepancy between a person’s public and private selves. Those who have rejected the validity of religious faith – either their own in particular or the phenomenon of religion in general — will of course feel especially vindicated by the hypocritical behavior. Nonetheless, it seems to me that when a Jew commits a crime, other Jews feel an especially strong sense of personal shame and culpability. This is no accident. It’s the way it should be. It is in the unique nature of the Divine Covenant with the Jewish People that even against our will, for better or worse, we are ultimately bound to Him as one, in spite of ourselves.

On the phone, I related my own history with similar things and told her how my experiences had taught me, early on, the invaluable lesson that Torah is not synonymous with all those who claim to be its adherents. But inwardly, her story singed my heart.
Then a bright hope arose.

It’s Monday, I told her. Rabbi Zev Leff gives his weekly shiur in one hour. Maybe you’ll be able to speak with him afterwards. Rabbi Leff will shed light on this situation.

We met at the Israel Center.

The shiur was about the pre-Messianic era.

“What is the purpose of Moshiach?” said Rabbi Leff. “To bring the whole world to a recognition of G-d. Only when the entire world believes that G-d is One, will we really believe it ourselves, that G-d is One, the sole Force behind nature.

“G-d is concerned that all human beings should believe in Him, that they should recognize we are created beings and that there is a G-d Who created us. This is the goal of Creation. How will this recognition come about? Respect for the Jewish People is respect for G-d. G-d cares that the non-Jews should think of us as a wise and understanding nation, and in the eyes of the nations, it is the Torah that is our wisdom and our understanding. When we don’t keep the mitzvahs properly, we will be considered fools in the eyes of the world. Kavod for the Ribono Shel Olam is kavod for the Jewish People.”
In addition to the phone call, I had just read in that morning’s paper about the most recent financial scandal involving a Jew. So up went my hand. “What meaning,” I asked Rabbi Leff, “can be found in the chillul Hashem caused by the contribution of so many Jews to the current global financial crisis?”

Rabbi Leff replied: “Twenty-seven years ago, the Klausenberger Rebbe said that before the Moschiach comes, the nations will have to recognize the significance of Am Yisroel, but many people won’t even know what Jews are. So a righteous Jew will die in India and the whole world will become aware of it.”

Amazement rippled through the room. Two weeks previously, the Chabad couple Rabbi Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg zt”l had died in the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India.

“In this pre-Messianic era,” he continued, “the peoples of the world must become aware of the importance of Jews. Just as they were made aware of the goodness of Jews, they have to become aware of the negative about us, as well. Maybe the reaction of the non-Jews will push us to become the people we are supposed to be.”

After the class, my friend spoke to Rabbi Leff and called me later to tell me about it. “He said that my neighbor, the rabbi, had made a mistake.”

“A mistake?” My heart lifted. Thank G-d that that was his answer! It instantly restored my faith. Even the respectful way Rabbi Leff put it, giving his fellow rabbi the benefit of the doubt, was in itself a Kiddush Hashem.

“Yes, Rabbi Leff said he must have misunderstood my situation because there’s absolutely nothing in hallacha that would allow me to continue working there. And you know what? Maybe that’s what happened. Maybe because of my Hebrew, I didn’t explain the situation correctly.”

May Hashem bless our teachers. And may we be privileged to fulfill our People’s destiny as a wise and understanding nation.

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23 Responses

  1. Ori says:

    Such innocence is undeniably beautiful. But it can also be deadly, if one isn’t prepared for the fact that the world of men (and women) is as full of lies as the proverbial pomegranate is full of seeds.

    We need to teach our kids to defend themselves, mentally and physically. The method I use is to lie to them, but make sure the lies are such they know they are lies. Then they’re supposed to tell me I’m wrong. For example, from about the age of two I tell them “you are a cat”. They correct me.

    It seems to be working. When my oldest was four, we had an argument about the word phone. He insisted on spelling it fone. He was wrong, but I was proud of the fact he corrected me based on his knowledge.

  2. Naftali says:

    Several years ago I received heterim from prominent Rosh HaYeshivahs to expose an organization that stole or wasted many millions of dollars in tzedakah money.

    When I tried to warn people about this crooked organization, I was frequently accused of Sinat Chinam and Lashon HaRa.

    About half the Orthodox Jews I spoke to told me that this crooked organization should be permitted to tell as many lies as they want and steal as much money as they want, so long as they help a few people.

    The result was that I was portrayed as the evil one because I tried to warn people, while the crooked organization that destroyed many millions of dollars in Jewish tzedakah money was surrounded by a halo of innocence and righteousness.

  3. Phil says:

    Ori, I’m not arguing with your gist, but I think it is proper that when a child wants to correct a parent, he should do so in the form of a question.

    PS: The Klausenberger Rebbe’s speech about that Jew from India can be found at a website called

  4. Ori says:

    Phil, tact is very important, but I think it’s for older kids. My oldest is seven, and we’re trying to teach him tact now. But tact often involves subtle deceit (asking a question when you’re perfectly sure of the answer, for example). Younger kids have enough problems distinguishing truth from falsehood. My three year girls only recently stopped asking me if they are girls, or if their brothers are boys.

  5. SE says:

    And what of shutting down of this specious organization? At the very least to rid our society of the untruthfulness that plagues it, must we not eradicate those image-defacing deceptions that do come to light?

  6. Observer says:

    Rabbi Leff’s response to your friend was clearly the right one. However, there may be another point that may be relevant sometimes. That is that the first Rabbi she asked was so focused on the short term, and real, needs of her family, that he didn’t focus on what her former boss had done. Not that he thought it was ok, but that’s not what he was thinking about. Obviously, you have to look at the entire picture, and he clearly realized that his thinking might be off. In short, not that he gave her the correct advice, but his mistake may have been because he was suffering from a bit of tunnel vision, rather than any level of acceptance of the man’s actions.

  7. lacosta says:

    forgive me if i misunderstand. a rov sets up a fraudulent tzedaka organization that could get the employee arrested, and a leading light says ignore it, it’s a mistake? it sounds more like what another blogger wrote this week–that it seem that in parts of the Orthodox world, miscreants get a free pass. What am i missing?

  8. NH says:

    The failure of the writer and the subject to publicize the name of the organization may well involve several transgressions. Consider not only the ongoing financial losses to contributors, but the diversion of funds from the truly needy, not to mention an achrayus toward the person who will replace the subject at her job.

  9. Milhouse says:

    What if the director was telling the truth? What if he and his own wife and children really were in dire need, so that he was justified in taking tzedakah for them? We haven’t been told anything about how much money he was taking, or what sort of lifestyle he was leading. But if he was unable to find work that would support his family, and was too ashamed to go begging openly for himself, why would he not be justified in doing this?

  10. Jewish Observer says:

    “What if the director was telling the truth? What if he and his own wife and children really were in dire need, so that he was justified in taking tzedakah for them? We haven’t been told anything about how much money he was taking, or what sort of lifestyle he was leading. But if he was unable to find work that would support his family, and was too ashamed to go begging openly for himself, why would he not be justified in doing this?”

    – Not sure if you are asking seriously, but from a checks and balances point of view you obviously cannot have someone assigning money to himself. He has an obvious conflict of interest regarding criticality of need compared to others, and amount. The fact that he didn’t is a clear warning flag.

  11. Milhouse says:

    I am asking seriously. This isn’t a question of checks and balances. You don’t condemn someone as a ganef, and tell a woman who depends on her income to quit her job, because of principles of transparency and best practices. Nor do you tell someone to subject his children to poverty because of such principles. They’re very much in the category of “syag”, not “din”. I repeat, how do we know that this director was not telling his secretary the honest truth, that he takes the money to support his family because he needs it? The donors get the mitzvah they bargained for, and he doesn’t have to reduce himself to begging at doors.

  12. Ken Bloom says:

    Observer: The woman was very distraught about the possibility you’re suggesting. She felt (and Rabbi Leff agreed) that no matter the difficult situation of her family, the actions of the organization she was working for were so far out of line that nothing could justify her continuing to work for them, and that nobody should be losing sight of the fact that the organizations actions are that bad.

    lacosta: Rabbi Leff assumed that a mistake had been made in presenting the situation, and that no reasonable rav could have permitted her to keep working there. If someone’s Hebrew is bad enough that the facts on the ground are not properly presented/understood, then that is a mistake.

  13. Observer says:

    To #9 – So you are saying that a man who can run a scam this sophisticated really, really couldn’t find gainful employment? I suppose it’s possible. But, does that justify deception? There is no possible doubt that if people had known that they were giving money for this man and his children a large proportion would have reacted very differently. He also clearly mislead his employee, and it’s hard to see any justification for that, either. So, even in the very best case, pulling out all the stops I can think of for Diyun Lekaf zechus, this man lied and deceived people to get their money. I think she was 100% right to be horrified.

  14. another Nathan says:

    Blanket prohibitions on lies are very warm and fuzzy, but not necessarily appropriate. For an extreme example, what if an evil person wants information, and will probably use it to cause harm? Do you have to tell him the truth? Our Avot twisted the truth on occasion, and while our meforshim explain the motives, they don’t change the fact of the twisting. And despite his technique for obtaining his father’s bracha, Yaakov Avinu is still known for ’emet.” Maybe it’s a translation issue, but “emet” and telling only the truth are not identical concepts.

  15. Jewish Observer says:

    “do you tell someone to subject his children to poverty because of such principles”

    – if they are truly deserving why wouldn’t they qualify through normai channels? Without a fair process, how do you know that more dersrving people wern;t denied support?

    “They’re very much in the category of “syag”, not “din””

    – I disagree. Were I a donor I would surely give on tnai / assumption that a fair process will be used to disbursing the $. Why shouldn’t breaking that process be a concrete halachic viloation?

  16. Milhouse says:

    #13, I don’t see anything in the story to suggest any great sophistication. All I see is that he printed up a brochure about helping needy kids. As for deception, sure it’s not nice, but can he afford to be nice? The question is whether anyone is really harmed. Donors who gave to an institution that helps needy children, but wouldn’t have given to an individual, are getting the same mitzvah they bargained for; are they really hurt? Did he mislead his employee, or did she just not ask the right questions? And again, even if he misled her, could it not be justified, not only to provide for his own family but for hers as well? She was bringing home an income, thinking that she had a normal job and had no reason to feel ashamed; is that so wrong?

    The core question here is: Is this man’s behaviour wrong per se, or is it only inadvisable, bad public policy, tending to create room for corruption, contrary to “best practice”, etc. Is he a rasha, or is he merely not a tzadik? And, if the latter, can he afford to be a tzadik? Must he sacrifice his dignity for the sake of these high ideals, and resort to openly begging for himself?

  17. lacosta says:

    if you all can justify these various definitions of emes [ like clinton’s what do you mean ‘is’] then i think i will not be able to give tzedaka to any collecting mossad— because i would like to know what i am giving to . you all may have no problem with this type of emes . i think it is just another example, unfortunately, of not being able to make a sentence out of the 3 words orthodox , money , trust —
    and it didnt used to be that way. maybe this is the effect of 2 torah generations where torah is the only value and work is the ugliest 4 letter word…..

  18. Sarah Shapiro says:

    Some of the above comments are almost too revealing, surprisingly so, of the mindset that would make financial deception by an observant Jew possible. The back-and-forth is as fascinating to me as it is horrifying.

  19. Samuel Svarc says:

    #18, I find the shoe quite on the other foot here. Mr. Milhouse has made some very valid points that no one has bothered to address.

    Suggestions have been made to publically embarass the director (#5 and #2) as well as your friend leaving her job and source of livelihood. While these can be considered in a theoretical way, they are, in the end, halachic questions and I don’t see any sort of anlysis here beyond some serious hand waving. And as the tone of #17 shows, some serious self examination is needed here.

    As an IT professional currently going for his Masters in IS, the son of a CPA, my questioning your “blood lust” for another Jew’s embarrassment stems fron no aversion to work but rather a simple concern for Emes. “What does the Torah want?”

  20. lacosta says:

    milhouse , i can now reasonably assume that any chareidi collector/mossad has your morals and will [not] give them accordingly

    sara shapiro , sadly this ‘kosher gneiva’ amongst achim , is magnified in business, leading to chassidishe shechita in the federal penitentiary system….

  21. Yitzchok Adlerstein says:

    Those who wish to examine the halachic sources on the propriety of deception for the purpose of extracting a larger donation for tzedaka should look at Pischei Choshen (R Yaakov Blau) vol. 4 15:7:22 and Tzedaka U-Mishpat (same author) 7:2:5* Helpful also is Shut Shevet HaLevi (R Wosner) vol.2 119

  22. SE says:

    milhouse, as to your questioning the degree of sophistication of the organization, it is apparently complex enough to require the hiring of a secretary (naturally at the expense of the donors tzedakah).
    Furthermore, the jist of your arguments – that the breach of truth may be justified if it comes to spare the director the humiliation of begging – I personally find repugnant. Perhaps stealing would be appropriate to prevent the humiliation? Where do you draw the line? Where is the justification for raising the prevention of shame to the top of the moral totem pole?

  23. Bob Miller says:

    Lack of transparency is a major problem, and not only for our charitable organizations. Many of what we like to think of as community institutions are really totally private and have no accountability to customers/clients, our public or our leaders. That’s not to say these necessarily do a poor job or have something to hide, but, if any are that way, it’s very hard to know.

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