Torah Musings: How Much for Your Integrity?


How Much for Your Integrity?

Sarah Pachter

Our family was walking through the Century City Mall one afternoon, when my son was drawn to the Microsoft Store. It was so crowded with people that we wondered, Is this some kind of a grand opening event? But when we peered through the glass panes, we saw that it was not a grand opening after all, just a line of people waiting to test a new virtual video game.

At the front of the line, stood a young lad wearing virtual reality goggles and making motions as though he were climbing a mountain. Twenty people stood behind him anxiously waiting to play. The anticipation in the air was palpable.

With a look of excitement in his eyes, our son begged us to stop and allow him to play. I figured I could run errands while my husband took the kids to wait in line. We planned to meet up afterwards.

Walking back towards the Microsoft store an hour later, I saw my son looking somewhat disappointed.

Pretending I didn’t notice his sour face, I asked brightly, “How was the game?”

His face still sad, he replied that he didn’t get to play.

“Why? Was the line too long? We can go back if you would like.”

Shuffling his feet while looking down, he said, “No…I wasn’t old enough.”

“Oh, bummer.”

My husband then added, “Yeah, but there were five-year-olds playing.”

At this point, I was utterly confused. Our son was 11, how could that be?

Children were technically supposed to be 12 years of age in order to play the game, and each parent was asked their child’s age before playing. Despite others’ willingness to lie, my husband was not comfortable with being dishonest.

Josh was certainly disappointed, but we felt a tremendous lesson was learned that day.

We spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in tuition hoping to teach our children Jewish values, which include being an honest person. We hope and pray the school will join us in our desire to impart lessons in integrity, honesty, and depth of character. But sometimes all it takes is a Sunday family activity and children will learn through our actions what really matters most.

What will we choose to reinforce in our child’s mind?

If we decide to stretch the truth in order to gain a few dollars or a fun experience, we take what we are trying to teach our children about the value of honesty and allow these lessons to slip right through our fingertips. Children are like sponges; we can preach all we want about honesty, but if we ourselves are not honest, what are we teaching our children? There is a great quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson that represents a fundamental lesson to parenting: “Your actions are so loud that I can’t hear what you are saying.”

What does this really mean?

To illustrate, a developer was renovating a home and came to the site to speak with the contractor. The head contractor was not present, but one of his workers was on the premises working long hours that day.

The worker approached the developer and said, “The contractor has not paid me and keeps telling me it’s because you did not pay him. But I see you give him the money each week, and I know he is lying and stealing from me.”

He continued, “I know what he did with the money he owes me…he went and bought himself a motorcycle!”

The developer was infuriated that the contractor would lie and act in such a manner. Especially since he himself was providing sufficient funds for him to pay his workers. He was shocked at the audacity.

After inspecting the property, the developer was ready to leave, and the worker decided to finish up. As the developer was locking up, the worker glanced up at the sky and said, “I think it’s going to rain.”

Skeptical, the developer looked up towards the clear night and politely answered, “Huh. You think so?”

“Yup!” the worker confidently answered, and he began to cover up the outdoor equipment, and anything that could rust in the wet and cold.

Pointing to the electric wood cutter that the worker was covering, the developer asked, “Is that yours?”

The worker responded, “No, it’s the contractor’s. He forgot about his tools. He left them here, and I wouldn’t want them to get destroyed.”

Sure enough, it rained the next day.

The developer was in awe of this simple construction worker. Here he was being lied to, was owed money, and yet was still willing to protect the tools that the contractor so irresponsibly left outside. This simple worker demonstrated honesty and integrity to its core. Gadlus, greatness, can be learned from moments like these.

Integrity is who you are when no one can see you. You can boast to others about how honest you are, but seeing it in action solidifies the impression. These are the moments our children pick up on.

The Torah writes: Rivkah, mother of Yaakov and Eisav.[1]

Rashi is puzzled by the passuk’s redundancy. If Rivka is the mother of Yaakov, we can automatically infer that she is also the mother of Eisav, as they are brothers. Stating both names is redundant, something the Torah typically avoids at all cost.

Rashi writes an answer that I have not forgotten, although I learned many years ago: I don’t know.

Rashi did not have to bring up the question at all! He could have casually passed right over this sentence, written nothing, and protected his image. Yet, he was notably honest. He did not know something and admitted it. He was not willing to fabricate an answer, no matter how logical it would sound, and no matter what people would think.

Where is honesty like that today? For a five-dollar discount, we lie. For a three-minute video game, we contort the truth and rationalize. This teaches our children a lesson, one we may regret years later.

Integrity is a lesson learned and practiced at all ages. Teaching our children to tell the truth in all situations, like when asked your age to test a new video game may disappoint them at the time, but they will walk away from the situation knowing in their hearts that being honest was the right thing to do.

Take the example of John Owen, who was asked to be the running mate of William Henry Harrison, the ninth president of the United States of America. Owen declined the offer because he did not feel it would be honest. At the time, he was leader of the Whig party (the Republican and Democratic parties did not exist as they do today). His role was to choose the party’s candidate for presidency; hence, he believed it would be wrong to accept such a position. He felt it would be akin to appointing himself, and therefore he deemed it necessary and honest to decline.

President Harrison died just weeks into his presidency from pneumonia. Had Owen accepted such a position, he would have become the tenth president of the United States.

In a further representation of his character, John Owen was known to reiterate that he never regretted his decision, not even for an instant, for doing what is right was his ultimate priority. He acted with honesty and integrity. Juxtapose this idea to today’s politicians, and we can see quite a stark contrast.

Whenever faced with a test in the area of honesty, I think of this man. If someone was willing to give up being the president of the United States of America to do what is right, then certainly I can maintain my integrity in smaller moments. Next time you are in a position where you may gain slightly by telling a lie, remember Rashi or the John Owens of the world. Surely, we can follow these examples by making honest choices, and thereby bring more light into the world.

Who is wise? One who learns from everyone. From the construction worker to the potential president of the United States, and of course the great Rashi, let us learn the lesson of honesty wherever it can be taught.

[1] (Bereshit 28:5)