Whenever some scandal breaks involving Orthodox Jews, as happened with a vengeance last Erev Shabbos, I'm reminded of a story about Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky. When Reb Yaakov was Rosh Yeshiva in Torah Vodaath, a high school student was caught helping another student on the state-sponsored regents exams. Reb Yaakov immediately expelled him. Decades later that former student was involved in a major financial scandal, which made front-page headlines.
At that time, Reb Yaakov expressed his bitterness at other institutions that had been quick to take in the expelled student. Had they not been so quick to forgive his cheating, Reb Yaakov felt, the student might have come to realize that cheating is a serious matter. Instead it became a way of life for him.
Reb Yaakov did not make exceptions for cheating on secular subjects. He knew that dishonesty is habit-forming. He also knew that children must learn early that actions have consequences, sometimes very serious ones, and that those consequences cannot always be wiped away by saying, "I'm sorry."
Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky delivered a similar message recently to a yeshiva bochur who sought his blessing prior to his trial for driving without a licence. The bochur in question had hit a wall while driving. (A few weeks earlier, another chareidi teenager severely injured an infant whom he struck while driving without a license.) After Reb Chaim found out what the trial was about, he refused to give his blessing that the bochur not receive a prison sentence, "You are mamash a muderer. Adaraba, let them put you in prison," Reb Chaim told the shocked young man.
Nor did Reb Chaim accept the idea that secular laws meant to protect the safety and smooth-functioning of society are to be treated as nuisances. To the bochur's protestation that he knows how to drive well, Reb Chaim responded that there is no such thing as "knowing" how to drive without having passed the driver's tests. To the young man's continued pleas, Reb Chaim's responded, "The best thing for you is to sit in prison and learn not to be a murderer." In other words, hopefully the prison sentence will help you realize the seriousness of what you did so that you don't actually kill someone while driving.
LIKE ATTITUDES TOWARDS CHEATING and unsafe behavior, a sensitivity to the impact of one's actions on the image of Torah Jews and Judaism tends to be formed early. As in everything else connected to middos development, that sensitivity is formed through small everyday actions. Rabbi Avraham Birnbaum recently wrote a column in another publication in which he described the fellow in front of him in a checkout line who was talking loudly on his cellphone the entire time he waited in line and continued to do so, even as he threw down his credit card on the counter and signed his receipt, without even glancing at the cashier. When Avraham reached the checkout counter, he smiled and asked the cashier, "How are you today?"
The cashier was surprised by the question and asked, "I hope you don't mind my question, but is there a reason why so many of 'you people' are so rude and don't seem to acknowledge my presence?" Fortunately, I read Rabbi Birnbaum's piece the same day another email arrived about the Waterbury Yeshiva and how it obtained a favorable long-term lease on a former campus of the University of Connecticut.
The elderly mother of the mayor of Waterbury lived adjacent to the yeshiva, and she frequently told her son how impressed she was with the quality of the students in the yeshiva. The latter, it seems, always rolled her large garbage cans to the street for the local garbage pick up. The mayor arranged a visit to the yeshiva, and was so impressed with the Rosh Yeshiva and the bochurim that he arranged for the yeshiva to lease the campus.
I don't know anything about the fellow who preceded Rabbi Birnbaum in the checkout line or the backgrounds of the bochurim in Waterbury Yeshiva. Nor are any of us just a product of our upbringing; we all have free will. But a refinement of middos is very much a function of the messages and models to which one is exposed. Certain homes and certain yeshivos are distinguished by the refinement of their products. Those who grow up with an emphasis on Kiddush Hashem tend do make better representatives of HaKadosh Baruch Hu.
WHILE ALL AREAS OF MIDDOS DEVELOPMENT require constant reinforcement throughout life, in no area is this so much the case as in the development of one's emunah. The issues that may trouble a teenager or an adult are not likely to occur to a child. And the answers given to a child of five or six will often not suffice for an older person. Thus there is a need for continually more sophisticated treatment of the basic issues of emunah. But even with respect to emunah one cannot overstate the importance of instilling in our children a deep awareness of Hashem's presence and concern for us.
Last week, I happened to pass on the street, an elderly lady who has come to our home collecting for nearly a quarter of a century. When I asked her how she was, she burst into tears. "I've been looking for you for nearly six months," she told me, "but you and your wife are never home." It seems, the last time she was in our home she had not enough change. I told her that I was mochel the change and to forget it. But she could not. For six months, she told me, she was sure she was going to come back as a gilgul because she had failed to give me five shekels.
I felt shamed by the depth of her emunah expressed in her tears of joy in finally having the chance to pay back five shekels, not to mention her sensitivity to the slightest trace of gezeilah (theft).
I'm pretty confident that none of Sarah's children will ever be marched out of an FBI headquarters in handcuffs with the TV cameras rolling.