Sunday, 13 January 2013

When Is Something Wrong?

There is a well-known gemara in which Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai's students are surrounding him as he lays on his deathbed.  They ask him for a blessing and he tells them he hopes they will fear God as much as they fear man.  "Not more?" they ask.  He replies by pointing out something obvious.  When a person sins he looks around to see if no one saw him but forgets there is an all-seeing Eye recording his activities even in the most hidden of locations.
The Torah itself repeats the phrase "V'yareisa meHaShem Elokecha" multiple times, especially when dealing with actions that are sins but which can be presented as proper.  Remember, the Torah is telling us, you can fool some of the people some of the time but you can't fool God and there will be an accounting for this.
The idea that we are constantly accountable for our actions to an objective external authority seems to stand in direct contrast to the current reigning secular morality in which the golden rule is "It's only illegal if you get caught".  In truth, the Chazal noted this when they described how everyone is pretty much involved with gezeilah to some extent.  We borrow things and forget to return them, we walk off with someone's pen and assume he won't notice or care.  We take someone's time for no good reason when  they're busy.
All these are little things but there is no boundary in today's society.  When one reads the news it seems there is one item after another involving someone who stole in one fashion or another getting caught.  And the question always seems to be: "What were they thinking?"  After all the high falutin' explanations are given there is a simple one that no one ever offers: "Well I didn't think I'd get caught."
This may work for people like Eliot Spitzer and Chris Spence but should Torah observant Jews hold the same view?  Is believing that it's only illegal if you don't get caught in consonance with the Jewish belief in an all-knowing, all-seeing God?
With all the hoopla in some parts of the Torah observant community around external values, about the pernicious effect of the internet and smart phones, the hysteria over gender separation and ever unrealistic standards of modesty in dress for women, no one seems to notice that this value has crept in and taken hold. For all the mussar stuff that's out there, does anyone stand back and say "If you're a real yirei Shamayim then be very afraid that God is watching you when you do wrong!"?  Why does it always seem to be about something else?
I believe the answer is something I've commented on elsewhere a long time ago.  Simply put, it is always easier to blame someone else for your problems, so much so that one eventually loses insight into one's role in one's issues.  Why address problems and make changes in the way you do things when it's really an external locus that is the cause and which, if it goes away, will solve the dysfunction?
As children we internalize the value of something being wrong only if you're caught.  One of the things that is supposed to happen when one grows up and matures is to realize that there are things which are inherently wrong.  They aren't done not because of the fear of getting in trouble but because they are wrong.  This does not seem to have happened in Western society for a few generations now and it is also evident in our culture.  Is it possible that it's tied to the idea that a man, when he grows up, gets to avoid his real duties in life forever in exchange for a permanent high school-like existence?  Is it just selfishness run amok?
Veyareisa meHaShem Elokecha.  As Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai noted, we fear the disapproval of other men.  How much is the black hat a symbol of religious observance versus how many times it's worn so people won't look at one and say "Tsk, thought you were frum"?  So much of our observance is based on keeping up with the Jonesteins, not out a sense of real connection and meaning.  This goes all the more so for the bein adam l'chaveiro component of halacha which really takes abuse nowadays.
Whenever someone cheats as gentile and says "Ah, but it's only a goy" the attitude is there.  Whenever someone says "Ah, but he wasn't convicted by beis din but only by the goyisher courts" that attitude is there.  And like all bad middos, what starts with a limit soon exceeds it.  We start by not caring what "they" think and it doesn't take long to no longer care what God things, chalilah, despite our protests to the contrary.
In last week's parasha we are told that before Moshe Rabeinu killed the Egyptian striking the Jew he looked around and saw there was no man.  One possible way of understanding this is to see it within this light.  As the Torah narrates, life wasn't completely hefker in Egypt.  Even Jewish slaves could petition their mistreatment before Pharoah (even if they couldn't get a great answer).  Moshe Rabeinu at that point was a prince in the royal palace and yet even he was held accountable for murder.  But when the Torah says he looked around and saw no one around perhaps it's referring to this principle of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai's.  What the Egyptian was doing was wrong.  Not wrong according to Egyptian laws but inherently and objectively wrong.  That no one was visible to Moshe's eyes to confirm this was irrelevant.  He did not seek out social approval or want to defy societal norms.  He simply sought to carry out justice.
This is a value we need to start reminding people of, as simplistic as it might seem to be.  Instead of whinging about mehadrin min mehadrin standards of food or claiming that not working for a living is a Torah value the emphasis must be on remember the true standard of behaviour that we, as observant Jews, are expected to maintain ourselves at, which means a constant positive awareness of the Ribono shel olam.


ZP said...

Great post!

I was recently speaking to other educators about the seemingly lack of emphasis in school on "yiras shamayim" and "yiras cheit".

Schools are trying so hard to find "new" tefillah programs that "work". There is a huge controversy going on right now in one school, where they are trying meditation and yoga and some other things and allowing students to opt out of regular tefillah (aka not davening with a minyan, not putting on tefillin).

I think it is connected to the lack of spirituality in schools and just in the MO world in general (I'm sure other spectrum as well).

Something that is difficult to teach children, specially when many use rewards/punishments, is to do something because it is right, not because you will get rewarded for it or because someone is watching.

This post reminded me of one of my favorite Netivos Shalom on his introduction to Sefer Bereisheet. He asks a question on the very first Rashi of the Torah: Rashi doesn't fully answer his (R' Yitzhak's) question. Rashi answers why we need the creation story, but why do we need all of the story of the Avos BEFORE we even get the Torah? Because the foundation for Torah is middos.

JT said...

My seventh grade Rebbe(!) said "The crime isn't what you did, it's getting caught." The problem is not new. I wonder if, perhaps it goes back to oppressive European regimes which required Jews to violate laws in order to survive?

My current Rebbe, a real Chassidish rebbe, encouraged some, but not all, of his followers to adopt elements of the Chassidic uniform. When I asked one of his intimates why he chose to press some and not others others, the response was "They need it." He was targeting those who might think "I look like a Chossid. What would my behavior make an observer believe about Chassidim?" This could work to elicit exemplary behavior or to attenuate inappropriate behavior. Either way - an improvement.

Mr. Cohen said...

תלמוד בבלי מסכת ברכות דף כח/ב

יהי רצון שתהא מורא שמים עליכם כמורא בשר ודם

אמרו לו תלמידיו עד כאן אמר להם ולואי תדעו כשאדם

עובר עבירה אומר שלא יראני אדם

SJ said...

i made some changes to my masthead. XD