Upon graduating from my rabbinic studies many years ago, the new young rabbis asked our beloved teacher and scholar for a final message as we embark in our new careers. The rabbi, who had taught three generations of aspiring leaders, simply said, “Never tell a lie. Not even a white lie.” At the time, we were disappointed as we were hoping to hear something that we thought was more profound, but that was the message. Don’t tell lies. Be honest. Don’t compromise your integrity.
That incident occurred nearly forty years ago, and as each year passes, I realize that there probably could not have been a more profound message. That was certainly an old school message. But I don’t see the new school teaching the importance of honesty at all costs and being extremely careful to speak the truth.
There are many references in Scriptures that emphasize this point. The Torah in Exodus tells us to stay away from a false matter. In Leviticus it is openly written, “Do not lie.” King David in Psalms 119:163 writes, “I despised falsehood and saw it as abominable. King Solomon in Proverbs gives a similar teaching. “G-d regards abominable the lips of falsehood.” This theme continues in many other places as well.
The Talmud would often use the oath as a means of settling a dispute when two individuals made a claim against one another and it was difficult to tell who was right. Sometimes even the threat of having to swear using G-d’s name while holding on to a Torah scroll was enough to get the guilty party to confess. Today legal documents begin with “under penalty of perjury the following is true.” This usually means there’s nothing to prevent it from being filled with falsehoods.
Maimonides understood the importance of integrity as he suggested that one should not begin practicing Judaism without a strong foundation in belief in G-d and an understanding that one must treat his fellow man with kindness and the highest level of caring. One needed to give the other the benefit of the doubt and one should take extreme caution that any money that comes into his hands be without blemish or deceit.
Somehow in our complex and highly technologically advanced world, this simple message is not being heard. It is certainly not being taught by our politicians but it’s probably not being taught as it should in our schools. There’s no question that we would have a far improved society if it were based on principles that require us to earn our money honestly, stay away from falsehood, have integrity in the way we interact with people and care about what is right in the eyes of G-d.
Perhaps we should think twice before we dismiss the old school and the wisdom of its sages. We might learn something that has been alluding us for far too long.