The problem with acting ethically is that you have to do it in real time
en years ago, just out of my master’s program, I landed a job at a major educational software company. I was so excited I had the opportunity to work there, and every day, as I took the subway to my new job, I felt proud and grateful.
Most of my coworkers were older than me, and only three were religious Jews. I had been frum for four years and had learned Sefer Chofetz Chaim with my mentor. As newly minted baalei teshuvah often are, I was really sincere and passionate about Yiddishkeit.
Still, when the test came, I failed.
At work one day, my manager Matt asked me to sit in on an interview he was conducting with a job applicant. Katy, the department head, would interview her first, and then he would interview her while I observed.
I sat in on the interview. The applicant, who happened to be a secular Jew, seemed knowledgeable and prepared. She was also very perky and upbeat.
After she left, Katy, a proud misanthrope, made it clear she hated the applicant’s personality.
“Omigosh,” Katy said, rolling her eyes after the interview. “She was so chirpy. I couldn’t bear to work with her. Her voice would give me a migraine.”
(Katy is the kind of person who wears shirts that say, “I can only be nice to one person a day. Today is not that day. Tomorrow doesn’t look good either.”)
“She said her favorite book is Winnie-the-Pooh,” Matt, my manager, offered with a sneer. “What is she? Eight?”
They continued to rip this poor girl to shreds: her voice, her personality, her demeanor, it was all ripe for criticism.
I sat there, feeling more and more uncomfortable.
Then Matt turned to me. “What did you think of her?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I didn’t think she was qualified enough either.”
“Definitely.” Matt nodded. “Definitely not qualified enough.”
The blood rushed to my face. I wished I could take back the words.
I went home that day and cried.
Despite the learning I had done, and the changes I had made in my life, when push came to shove, I chose my job over my convictions. I didn’t keep the Torah when it hurt.
For years, that girl’s hopeful face haunted my dreams.
The problem with acting ethically is that you have to do it in real time. If you’re given a multiple-choice problem about the halachos of lashon hara, for example, you’ll probably get the right answer if you study enough.
The hard part is actually doing the right thing in the real world, when you only have a few seconds to make a decision. When your boss turns to you and says, “What did you think of her?” You have an instant to decide your future — to make the choice to keep the Torah, even when it hurts.
When someone makes the right choice, it’s inspiring to witness.
A few years ago, my husband and I spent one Sunday in July house-hunting. We asked my parents tag along so we could get their opinion. We’d already seen three houses with our agent that day, and then we went to the fourth: a nice brick house with flowers in the front yard. Of course, we knew the owner was Jewish as soon as we spotted the mezuzah on the doorjamb, and sure enough, a man sporting a gray beard and a black velvet yarmulke opened the door.
Our feet creaked on the hardwood floor as we piled inside. The house had seforim on the bookshelves, Jewish art on the wall, a set of silver candlesticks on the walnut wood sideboard table.
The (non-Jewish) real estate agent started showing us around. “This house will give you plenty of space as your family grows,” he said. “Do you see how large the living room is?”
The owner pointed to a corner of the ceiling. “You should know, there’s a leak in this room. Whenever it rains, it comes in through there.”
The real estate agent’s face turned red. “I’m sure it’s nothing a good repairman couldn’t fix.”
The frum owner shook his head. “I’ve had it fixed a dozen times, and it never holds. I don’t think anyone’s ever going to be able to repair it permanently.”
The real estate agent quickly moved us along to the master bedroom, pointing out how big the bathtub was.
“I have to tell you,” the owner interrupted. “The water heater will probably need to be replaced soon. After a few showers, the water gets cold.”
The agent gave a tight smile. “Why don’t you let me show them the house?”
But the owner didn’t listen. Room by room, the agent shared the virtues of the house, and the owner told us everything that was wrong with it. By the end of the tour, the agent looked like he was going to blow a fuse.
This frum man was scrupulously honest. Even if it meant potentially losing the sale, or getting less money, he wanted us to know his house’s defects.
My parents aren’t observant, but after we left, they marveled at the character of the homeowner they had just met.
“I’ve never seen that before,” my mother said on the car ride back. “No one does what he just did.”
My father nodded.
“That really is an example of religion making someone a better person,” he said.
This man was a tzaddik, and after we left, I told my husband that we should have asked him for a brachah. Because someone who keeps the Torah, even when it hurts, even when it pinches their wallet — that’s a tzaddik.
Recently, I drove my kids to the library. I parked between two cars, and thought I was doing a fine job of it until I heard the sickening screech of metal against metal. I got out and saw the car next to mine had a few small scratches on it.
Are you sure that was you? a voice in my head asked. Maybe it was there all along. It’s almost nothing. Maybe you don’t really have to leave a note. No one saw it.
But I sighed and shook my head. G-d saw.
I took my kids to the library, asked for a pen and paper, and left a note on the windshield with my name and number.
A woman called me and said I should be more careful, but that she’d let it go this time — baruch Hashem.
As I hung up the phone, I realized with a sense of joy that I had grown. That one bad decision all those years ago didn’t define me. This time, I kept the Torah — even when it hurt.
Lori Holzman Schwartz has a master’s degree in information and library science and works as a curriculum writer and librarian in New York. She is the author of Chaim Ephraim and the Shabbos Guests and Miss Crabapple’s Library.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 978)
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