Recently a young man claiming to be a poor chasan appeared at our door shortly before the onset of Shabbos. I gave him a good-sized contribution. A few minutes later, I went to take out the garbage, and spotted a member of a comedically incompetent group of con-men that has been plaguing our building on Erev Shabbos on the stairs.
On the way to the garbage can, I noticed the con-men’s regular car down the street. I waited under the building, and the "poor chasan" and his accomplice came out of the elevator together, joking and smiling. I approached the "chasan" and demanded that he give me back the money or I would call the police. The two insisted that they had nothing to do with one another, and had only met by chance in the elevator. But the "chasan" grudgingly returned my contribution.
Rather than feeling good about having retrieved my misdirected tzedakah, however, I felt violated. I had wanted to help a poor yeshiva bochur get married. And now I was deprived of my mitzvah.
This incident got me thinking about the corrosive power of lying and cheating. As a consequence of this group’s antics, we are giving differently. New collectors come under a cloud of suspicion, however fleeting, that was never there before. Hopefully, they receive no less than before, but something has been lost.
Dishonesty erodes the fabric that binds any social unit, whether it be the family, a community, or even a nation: trust. Every act of deceit has consequences far beyond its immediate impact; it devalues the basic social currency – the words we speak to one another. Perhaps in recognition of the far-reaching consequences of every lie, the Gemara entertains the possibility that knowingly signing a fraudulent contract also falls under the rule "allow oneself to be killed rather than transgress" – along with murder, idolatry, and immorality (Kesubos 19a).
A visitor from abroad recently brought his son to Rav Ahron Leib Steinman, and asked him what should be the focus of his chinuch. Rav Steinman replied simply: emes. "Separate yourself from every false thing," (Shemos 23:7) Rav Steinman, was saying, must be the centerpiece of our education of our children, until uttering a falsehood or engaging in deception becomes unthinkable for them. That education involves both the lo lishma (fear of punishment) and the lishma of following the Torah’s command. Constant stories about the exactitude of the Gedolei Yisrael with respect to emes would be one means of bringing out the latter.
Much behavior that would be appalling in adults – standing on tables, refusing to "give Shalom" to the rav -- may be perfectly appropriate in a child. But from time that our children are old enough to know the difference between truth and fantasy, we must work to uproot lying.
First, children should understand that lies will inevitably be discovered. As Mark Twain said, "If you tell the truth, you don’t need a good memory." But lies usually involve a tangled skein of further lies to cover up the original deception. And at some point, they will be found out. Next, our children must learn that the negative consequences of being caught outweigh any possible advantage from the lie.
But far worse than any punishment, they should feel, is the loss of parental trust that comes with being exposed as having lied. The crown of a good name once tarnished is hard to restore to its original lustre.
Rabbi Binyamin Kaminetsky relates how his father Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky instilled in him for life the fear of losing his standing as an upright Jew. Reb Yaakov noticed his son carrying a book that he had been reading on the train between Baltimore and New York, and asked him whether it was his. Reb Binyomin replied that he had borrowed it from the Ner Israel library. But Reb Yaakov was not satisfied with that response, and demanded to know whether he had explicit permission to take the book from the library.
Informed that he did not, Reb Yaakov instructed him to immediately mail it back to Ner Israel. "All your life you have learned in yeshivos and soon you will receive semichah," Reb Yaakov told his son. "Yet if anything happens to this book before you return it, you will be disqualified as a witness in a Jewish court. . . . Does it really pay for 75 cents to change your entire halachic status?"
The only way to instill in our children the concept that lying is a dvar mius (something disgusting) is by modeling that attitude ourselves. We sow destruction when we involve our children in deceit – e.g., telling the stranger at the door that their father is not home – or let them witness less than honest behavior on our part. An expert in dealing with "children at risk" once told me that the best protection against the phenomenon is for children never to see their parents engaged in various shtiklach.
Unless deceitfulness is uprooted early on the habit of cutting corners for momentary gain can come to pervade every aspect of one’s life. Reb Yaakov once threw a student out of Torah Vodaas for allowing another student to copy his answers on the New York State Regents Exam. Decades later the same person was caught in a front-page financial scandal. Reb Yaakov laid the blame on those institutions that had been too quick to accept him after his expulsion and had treated his cheating on a government exam as inconsequential. Had they not done so, Reb Yaakov commented acerbically, he might have learned that cheating is something serious.
Citizens of Israel are now experiencing what happens when a whole society is comprised of people who have not learned midvar sheker tirchak. Senior ministers, including the prime minister, the heads of the Income Tax Authority, the person in charge of combating corruption in the Civil Service Commissioner’s office, and half a dozen other leading figures are either under suspicion of criminal fraud, being actively investigated, or already on trial.
Joe Citizen starts to wonder why he should pay taxes, when rich businessmen are able to influence the appointment of cronies in the Income Tax Authority. And even worse, he wonders how he can entrust his son to the IDF, after the former Chief of Staff has charged that the ground operations belatedly commenced in the final two days of the war in Lebanon, in which more than thirty Jewish soldiers were killed, was nothing more than a "spin operation" designed to bolster the Prime Minister’s low poll numbers.
A country in which citizens have no more trust in their leaders’ ability to place the national welfare above their personal gain has truly lost its way.