How Should I Respond?

When they gossip in Vilna, they desecrate Shabbos in Paris.

– Rav Yisrael Salanter

Some take Rav Yisrael Salanter’s causality to be metaphysical. I don’t think that fits R’ Yisrael’s general approach to life. Mussar is fully comprehensible without invoking metaphysical concepts. I would instead say it’s more likely to be very rationalistic psychology. In two ways:
1- It fosters a general culture of the rules and tradition not really counting. Each person contributes to eroding the culture, and thus the lives of everyone else in it.
2- It makes Orthodoxy look like a bunch of hypocrites and turns people off from looking at what we claim to preach.

All Jews are intermixed, one in the other.

– Ein Yaaqov, Sanhedrin (the version in the Vilna Shas 27b differs, to speak of “guarantors one for the other”)

We are all in one boat. You can’t drill a hole in the boat without sinking all of us. I know American values are based in personal autonomy, of protecting one’s rights and “live and let live”. But as we see from Sanhedrin, that notion is very un-Jewish. Conversion is summed up by Ruth’s “your nation is my nation and your G-d is my G-d”, and letting the rest of “O Israel” hear is the first two words of our doxology. We, the Jewish People, are a unit. When Madoff sins, people think less of me.

I think about these words reading recent events in the news. When petty customs evasion is the norm, we open our children to the threat of consorting with drug smugglers. And when the masses play games with their taxes, the hard-pressed charity goes one step beyond. And then another step, and then another.

Yirmiahu posted the following on his blog, Machzikei HaDas:

“The Holy Rav, our master Menachem Mendel (of Rimnov) commented about the curious sight that we often see children who in their youth go to school and continually learn Torah, and daven with kavanah, and answer “Amen, yehei Shmei rabba” and Amen, and are upright in their ways. Afterwards, when they grow up, their behaviour reverses, chas v’Shalom, with diminished middos, neglecting Torah, Prayer, and so forth…the Torah which they learned in their youth, breath in which there is no sin (Shabbos 119b), would be suitable to establish them, and add strength to their neshamas, since a mitzvah leads to another mitzvah.

Regarding this he said, “This is because of their fathers who feed them stolen money which they enriched themselves through unfaithful commerce, and fattened themselves in violation of halachah… and in this way they descend into desire and degraded middos.”
From his Holy words it is established, that also with food which is inherently kosher, except that it was acquired with money which isn’t acquired in an upright manner and lacking in emunah. The power of the act enters the product, and the food goes from the side of kedushah and descends and degrades himself into desires and poor midos, rachmana litzlan. “
– The Sanz-Klausenberger Rebbe zy’a, Shefa Chaim, Chumash Rashi Shiur, parshas Nasso 5742, page 395.

Interestingly, we already saw this same idea from Rabbi Breuer, in his essay ‘Glatt Kosher — Glatt Yoshor’. And Rabbi Schwab warns us that the reason why, despite of our investment in education, we fail to produce the number of greats that we did in previous generations is that so much of that tuition is being paid with “tainted money”. Non-kosher food “closes up the heart”; food bought with non-kosher money, no less so. This too could be understood in metaphysical terms, but I believe one can keep things in totally rationalistic terms. We are teaching our children that halakhah is something you can get away with violating, and then are surprised when their commitment is not all it could be.

On the plus side, this gives us something to do. The unity of the Jewish People, that we’re all in one boat, means that any personal action I take can actually be a step to reversing the trend.

I often tell people that if I ever were to become capable of deciding halachic questions, my first ruling would be the following: If you buy an esrog, and the salesman declines a check telling you that he would prefer cash, or even that he could charge you less if you paid in cash, you must pay be check. He is prohibited from avoiding sales tax, and you are therefore prohibited from helping him do so, or even making it more tempting. Thus an esrog bought in a circumstance where you have real reason to believe that’s what you are doing would be useless, as trying to use it for the mitzvah would be a mitzvah haba’ah ba’aveirah (a mitzvah made possible through a sin) and void.

Here are some suggestions, and if someone wants to add their own ideas in the comments section, I would be grateful:

  • If one finds that they are much stronger at rituals that involve his relationship with G-d than in interpersonal integrity, how about the following exercise:  Every time you enter a room, kiss the mezuzah (if there is one) and remember that Hashem is in that room along with any people who may or may not be there, watching.
  • Another suggestion for the same person: When you greet a person, think “Behold, the ‘Image’ of G-d!”
  • Embrace a role model, so that when one is making a tough decision, his/her face will be before you to ask, “What would you do?” (Perhaps actually keeping a picture around near your bill desk would help remembering to do so.)
  • If the former advice could be mapped to the line in Pirke Avos “asei lekha rav — make a mentor for yourself”, then one must also consider the continuation: “qenei lekha chaveir — acquire for yourself a friend.” Picking peers with integrity helps keep “shenanigans” in the range of the unthinkable.
  • Think of the people for whom you are a role model. Keep a picture of your children on the desk, reminding you to refrain from making business decisions you would be ashamed to explain to them.
  • Learn the appropriate sections of Choshein Mishpat, the Qitzur Shulchan Aruch (simanim 62-67), or the Chafetz Chaim’s Ahavas Chessed — the halakhos of integrity. Daily, so that the topic is always close to consciousness.
  • Spend more time doing things that are truly important, and free. The less one is caught up in the pursuit of trying to buy happiness, the less tempting it is to try to aquire at the expense of the things that really matter. Related to this is the idea of planning one’s own eulogy, and making every decision in life with an eye toward whether it will help make that eulogy happen.  I thought I blogged this notion already, but I see it’s still on my to-do list. The things I want in my eulogy, a summary of my life’s accomplishments, should drive what I actually decide to do in life. No?

Again, I invite others to join with their suggestions. And to actually follow through on them. Today. While the outrage of today’s news provides the fire and motivation to act.

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  1. Yirmiahu says:

    While I’m not one to look at the pragmatic and metaphysical aspects of cause and effect as a dichotomy, I think your post does a great job at highlighting the more pragmatic side of the issue. I had considered trying to do it myself but I’m glad I left it for your much more capable hands.

    Incidentally, I once noted to Rebbitzin Katz that I had googled “Kosher Gelt” (incidentally after first reading one of the Sanz-Klausenberger Rebbe’s pieces on the topic) and the first post that wasn’t about Channukah candy was discussing the teaching of her father Rav Bulman zt’l. Perhaps there are a few of us on the net who can help make the candy sites further down on the list.

  2. Orthonomics says:

    Live below your means and make a commitment to living debt-free. Constantly having to chase money is an invitation to engaging in less than honest activity.

  3. Bob Miller says:

    To implement the Orthonomics program above, we have to be able to say no to the unreasonable societal demands on our money. But then we have to take care of the reasonable ones! The costs of Jewish education and of the shidduchim/marriage/newlywed cycle, for example, have to be resized somehow to be consistent with both our means and goals. Movement in that direction requires inspired leaders and inspired followers implementing concrete programs. Exhortation only goes so far.

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