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Accepting the Honesty Challenge
Rabbi Moshe Francis

Accepting the Honesty Challenge

by Rabbi Moshe Francis

Based on an address given by Rabbi Moshe Francis at the TorahU'Mesorah Conference of Principals held in Chicago in early 2000.


Today, what is Klal Yisroel's "Achilles heel" – its most vulnerable point?

Rov b'gezel u' miyut b'araiyos, v'hakol b'avak loshon hara –Most commit theft, a minority commit acts of immorality and everyone commits the sin of the dust of loshon hara. (Bava Basra 165a)

Rashi explains that gezel in this context does not mean outright theft. Instead, this gozlin is someone who rationalizes and justifies withholding money that rightfully belongs to someone else.

Now, why do Chazal single out the aveiros of gezel, araiyos and avak loshon hara? The Maharsha explains that gezel represents the aveiros a person does with his money or his resources; araiyos represents those he does with his body; and avak loshon hara represents those he does with his soul, since speech is inextricably linked to the soul.

But why did Chazal choose these particular sins from each category. Apparently, the drive to commit these sins is fueled by the most powerful human drives. "Hakinah hakavod v'hataiva motzein es haAdom min haolam- Jealousy, honor and desire drive a person from this world. (Avos 4:28) Kinah fuels the yetzer hara for gezel. Since we have a desire to be more successful than our peers, to have a nicer house and all the accoutrements of success, we sometimes justify dishonest behavior in order to overtake the "competition." Taiva represents the yetzer hara for araiyos, and kavod is responsible for the perverse human urge to elevate oneself by denigrating others.

Rov b'gezel u' miyut b'araiyos, v'hakol b'avak loshon hara is true for all generations, including our own. We have launched a counterattack against some of these aveiros and have had much success. When I was a child learning in yeshiva, it seemed that loshon hara was considered a force too formidable to overcome. Everyone was resigned to the fact that it was somehow bigger than any one of us. It is only in recent times that the Manchester Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Yehuda Zev Segal zt"l, and others have rallied Klal Yisroel to fight this aveira, and to convince us that it can be conquered.

Years ago, an organization like the Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation -- which is marshaling the latest technology and enlisting the best communicators to help Klal Yisroel fight loshon hara and other sins of speech – would have been unimaginable. Our efforts to control loshon hara have succeeded because we have taken a preemptive approach, teaching young children about the pitfalls of this aveira, honing their sensitivity and inspiring them. When I innocently say to one of my children, "Oh, you were fighting with someone in school. Who were you fighting with?" the instinctive response is "It's loshon hara, I can't tell you." Their instincts are better than mine because their education in shemiras haloshon began at a young, tender age.

Miyut b'araiyos – Immorality is rampant in our generation. Every reasonable barrier dictated by common decency is being torn down one by one. Recently, while walking through the heart of Boro Park on 50th street and 16th avenue, I passed a huge, full-color, illuminated ad for a lurid TV show on a bus shelter that was just a few feet away from posters advertising upcoming shiurim at the Stoliner Bais Medrash. Despite the Agudah's admirable efforts to limit offensive ads in the transit system, we are still vulnerable to them even in the middle of Boro Park!

We have not, however, conceded the battle. Leading Roshei Yeshiva have spoken out forcefully against TV, videos and the Internet. Many yeshivos are not afraid to make a TV-free home a prerequisite for admission. Rabbi Zev Cohen of Chicago stood face-to-face with President Clinton and said that it is time to "pull the plug" on television.

Rov b'gezel. Do we combat dishonesty in frum society with similar vigor? Just a few weeks ago, HaRav Mattisyahu Solomon, shlita, electrified the audience at the Midwest Agudah Convention by quoting the Smag (Mitzvos Asay -74). "Now that the Galus has been prolonged for so long, Jews should separate themselves from the vanities of this world and seize the seal of HaKadosh Boruch Hu, which is truth. They should not lie to Jews or non-Jews or mislead them in any way. They should sanctify themselves even through that which is permitted to them, as it says, 'The remnant of Israel will not commit an injustice and will not speak falsehood, and deceitfulness will not be found in their mouths.' And when HaKadosh Baruch Hu will come to redeem them the non-Jews will say that He acted justly because they are truthful people and the Torah of truth is in their mouths. But if they [the Jews] conduct themselves deceitfully with non-Jews, they [the nations] will say what did HaKodesh Baruch Hu do? He chose for his portion, thieves and cheats."

Just as the battle against loshon hara and araiyos begins with our children, so should the effort to develop their sense of honesty. We have long recognized the importance of "Chanoch l'naar al pi darcho gam ki yazkin lo yosur mimeno." Educate the child according to his way; also when he is old he will not turn from it. "Yankusa klilah devarda." Youth is a crown of roses. As a neiur cholak, a clean slate, a child is totally receptive to learning a Torah value system; it is our duty to fully utilize this opportunity.

When I was a child in Yeshiva, I don't remember there being a great emphasis on honesty – that is, until I became a talmid of HaGaon Rav Avrohom Pam, shlita. I can still vividly remember him telling the story about Rav Yisroel Salanter and the shochet. A shochet once told Rav Salanter that he was giving up schechita because he just couldn't bear the awesome responsibility – the risk that he might cause others to transgress the issurim of eating improperly slaughtered meat. "What will you do instead?" asked Rav Salanter. "I plan to begin a career in business," said the shochet. "Business?" asked Rav Salanter incredulously, "Business involves more potential issurim than schechita and they are less widely known. It is a far greater risk."

When I was about to embark on a year of study in Eretz Yisroel, I had two transportation options. A Rosh Yeshiva told me that a regular ticket would cost a little over $300; one provided through a loan from the Jewish Agency would cost about $600. The Jewish Agency, however, did not always collect on their loans, so it could end up as a free ticket. I presented the two choices to Rav Pam. He said, "I don't understand. A loan is a loan even if they don't ask you for the money back. You still must repay it. You should definitely choose the first option."

I was once talking with HaGaon Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky in his living room when some children came to the door. They were collecting tzedaka and selling tickets from a book for 25 cents a piece. They had just run out of tickets, but asked Reb Yaakov for a 25 cent donation anyway. He refused, saying that if they would keep the money for themselves no one would ever know. He didn't want to create that temptation.

What can we do in our own yeshivos katanos and mesivtos to promote honesty? Recently I heard a joke: A principal calls a kid's parents to school. "I'm afraid your child was cheating," the principal says. "He and the boy next to him had the same answers." "How do you know our son was cheating?" ask the parents. "Maybe it was the other boy." "Look at question 13," says the principal. "The other boy wrote 'I don't know.' Your son wrote 'I don't know either.'" Although this is a joke, it is symptomatic of today's cavalier attitude towards cheating.

When my daughter was six years old, she came home one day and told my wife, "I was so lucky today. We had a spelling test and I knew all of the answers. There was just one word that I wasn't sure how to spell. I was about to hand in my paper and I noticed the girl sitting next to me spelled the word differently than I did, so I changed my answer. Baruch Hashem, I was so lucky!" It is understandable if a 6 year-old doesn't know yet that it is wrong to cheat. But what happens when the child is 12 or 16 and still doesn't realize that it is wrong?

U.S. News and World Report recently devoted its cover story to cheating. In that article, Professor Davis, who gathered data on more than 17,000 students, notes that 50 years ago only about 20% of college students admitted to cheating in high school. Recent studies show that the figure has exploded. Today, anywhere from 75% to an astonishing 98% admit to cheating in high school. The article further states that "the pressure to succeed particularly on 'high stakes' tests can cause students to consider extreme measures." Cheating has also become more sophisticated, with students picking up reports on the Internet and passing the work off as their own. Considering the double curriculum of a yeshiva student and the emphasis that frum parents place on achievement, the pressure to cheat is dramatically increased in yeshivos. Yeshiva students often do not have time to adequately prepare for a test. The choice: either cheat or get a low grade. Sadly, many of our yeshiva students are making the wrong choice.

Another factor is that in yeshivos, secular studies are often viewed as a necessary – or not so necessary – evil. A yeshiva bochur may rationalize cheating if he views the time spent studying for secular tests as pure bittul Torah. We all know cases of cheating in the yeshiva system. I recently heard about highly-regarded girls cheating on admission tests for seminaries. One principal told me that a teacher in his school accused a girl of copying a composition from someone else. In defense, the girl's mother said, "My daughter definitely didn't copy it. I know. I wrote it for her."

How do teachers react when they catch a student in the act? Usually with a reprimand or by lowering the child's grade. This, however, neglects the underlying issue. Our children must learn that cheating is totally incompatible with being a ben or bas Torah. Are they aware of the halachic and moral implications of their behavior? The sefer Halichos haOlam says that, "copying on tests is included in the prohibition of geneivos daas – misleading another person. It is prohibited even when one misleads a non-Jew. If a person receives monetary benefit as a result of cheating, that is considered theft. Similarly, if one receives an academic degree earned through cheating and uses this diploma to earn a living, he transgresses the prohibition of theft." HaGaon Rav Moshe Feinstein zt"l is cited as the source of these rulings.

What about when parents help with the homework and the answers are 85% the parents and 15% the child? What about parents who write less than truthful notes to school to excuse their children's lateness or absence? And what about when teachers angrily confront students by shouting, "Was it you who was whispering in class?" The child, frightened and embarrassed, feels compelled to deny it. Do we transgress l'fnei ever when we force children into such behavior?

The Sh'lah HaKodesh writes that the best guarantee of a good upbringing is to train a child to be truthful. A truthful child will always fulfill his parents' wishes because he knows that when they eventually question him, he must respond honestly. The Sh'lah writes that he knows of a great Sephardic Chasid in Yerushalayim who was willing to sacrifice anything rather than be dishonest. He attributed his passion for honesty to his upbringing. Whenever one of the children in his family did something wrong, his father always said, "If you tell the truth and admit the misdeed, I will forgive you." When the child confessed, not only did his father refuse to punish him, he rewarded him with a few coins for the honesty. The children all grew up with a love of truth.

Yisro advised Moshe to choose judges with four qualities, but the verse mentions that Moshe sought only one quality – anshe chayil. What happened to the other qualifications? The Netziv explains that Yisro had advised Moshe to choose judges mikol ha'am – from the common people. Moshe, however, chose mikol Yisroel – from the scholars. If someone is a talmid chocham and a student of Moshe Rabbeinu, the Torah he learns will automatically guide him to become a tzaddik, chasid, yoshar and ne'eman. Therefore Moshe had to seek only anshe chayil. The other traits were automatically guaranteed.

Let us hope for the day when the Torah we teach our children will ensure the transmission of all positive character traits. The Jewish people will attain the level where "the remnant of Israel will not commit injustice" and, in the words of the S'mag, "When HaKadosh Baruch Hu comes to redeem them, the non-Jews will say, 'Hashem did well because they are men of truth and the Torah of truth is in their mouths.'"

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