Once, during the holy season of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Hasidic master Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, paused in his devotions and looking at his disciples with sad, tear-laden eyes, remarked, “What a funny world it is that we live in these days. There was a time, you know, when Jews would be scrupulously honest in the market place and be the most outrageous liars in the synagogue. These days, however, everything is reversed. The Jews are surprisingly honest in synagogue, but in the streets and market places, I’m ashamed to tell you.”
“But rabbi,” his followers asked, “why are you so distressed. How can it be bad if Jews are telling the truth is synagogue?”
“I’ll tell you why I’m distressed,” answered Levi Yitzhak, “In days gone by, Jews were known for their honest dealings. They took the words of Torah seriously. Their ‘yes’ was always a ‘yes’ and their ‘no’ was always a ‘no’. They had honest weights and fair measures. Yet, on the Days of Awe they would fervently recite the confessional prayers declaring that they had lied, cheated, swindled and deal dishonestly. This was a lie. Everyone knew that truth and faithfulness were the lamps lighting their way.
“But these days, the reverse takes place. In the streets and in the market place, the world of commerce and social interaction, they lie and cheat, but when they come to synagogue, they, sadly, profess the truth.” (Adapted from Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim p. 230)
The Days of Awe are rapidly approaching. We are now in the month of Elul, the month of repentance that precedes Rosh Hashanah. Soon we will be in synagogue for the High Holy Days and we might ask ourselves if Levi Yitzhak’s words refer to us. Where do we tell the truth and where do we lie?
We know that we can live the truth of our faith in our daily lives. We are able to bear witness to our commitment to God and our heritage by the way we interact with each other and our world. All our pious devotions, our concerns with ritual details, our deep identification with the Jewish people and tradition, our profound journeys of spiritual self-discovery mean very little if we do not conducted ourselves in the spirit of truth and honesty.
These are important values for all aspects of our lives but they are central to our working lives. We all work hard. We spend so much of our time making a living. We put in many hours, sometimes too many hours, at our jobs and professions. A very good part of our day is spent at work. Though we may wish to be someplace else and long for more time with family and friends, our working hours can be spiritually precious. They provide us with many opportunities to express our deepest values.
Among the various rules and regulations found in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetzey, are a few laws addressed to our business lives. These principles form the foundation for a Jewish business ethic that centers on the values of fairness, honestly, truthfulness and justice. In Ki Tetzey, we are directed us to treat our employees fairly. We must not withhold their pay. (Deut. 24: 14-15). Here we learn that the Torah forbids usury. We must not exploit one stricken by poverty by demanding interest (23: 20-21). The weekly portion instructs us to take care of the property of neighbors. We must return their lost animals and objects and aid their beasts of burden when they fall (22:1-4). Above all we read that the Torah requires us to be truthful. We are required to have true weights and measures because honesty lies at the heart of a strong and healthy community (25:13-15). Finally, in Ki Tetzey we discover that the Torah underscores its demand for honesty in business by reserving strongest word of condemnation — toeivah — “abomination” — to describe those who ignore these laws and deal dishonestly (25:16).
In only a few weeks we will be back in synagogue for the High Holy Days. How would each of us respond to Rabbi Levi Yitzhak’s demand that these laws form the center of our Jewish lives? Who knows? But within our people’s folk tradition there is a story of at least one man who tried to be honest in both the market place and the synagogue.
It was a dark, cloudy, Selichot evening, the Saturday night prior to Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the last week of the month of Elul. Not a star could be seen. On this cold and heavy early fall night, the entire village was gathered in the synagogue for the penitential prayers. The plaintive voice of the cantor and the soul bending exhortations of the rabbi so moved the worshipers, that one by one they came up trembling and confessed their sins. This one admitted to missing the morning worship. That one confessed to eating forbidden foods. Another confessed to smoking on the Sabbath. And so on throughout the congregation. The darken heavens captured their darkened spirits.
Finally, Joseph, the grocer, came forward, humble and ashamed. He felt over burdened by his sense of sinfulness. He felt that each sin his friends and neighbors confessed could be his own. With a broken spirit, he shuffled up to the front of the synagogue and sighed,
“Dear God, please forgive me for neglecting my studies, for avoiding your house, for my lazy observance. I was so busy with making a way for myself and my family. I did not always keep the Sabbath or follow the dietary laws, but please remember, that I always made payroll and that I kept my scales honest and my measures exact.”
At that moment, the clouds parted and the late night stars twinkled through the synagogue’s windows and all returned home with a new sense of resolve.
That night, at least, and, hopefully, for many more, truth and faithfulness lit Joseph’s path.