| Parshah |

The Principal of Integrity

From a Jewish perspective, “honesty” and “integrity” cannot be restricted to individual paragons of virtue




“If a man makes a vow to Hashem, or makes an oath to prohibit his soul, he shouldn’t violate his word; according to everything that comes from his mouth he should do.”

(Bamidbar 30:3)

Over the years, I’ve contemplated the concepts of “honesty” and “integrity” and the difference between the two.

Honesty is the virtue of describing reality exactly as it is, of telling the truth. In this day and age, when there’s so much confusion as to whether or not truth even exists, it’s imperative to place honesty on the list of important human virtues.

Yet for Judaism, truth is more than just a virtue. It’s one of the three fundamental principles, along with justice and peace, upon which the world stands.

But as rare as the trait of honesty is, the trait of integrity is even more difficult to find.

Integrity is the ability to not only say what you mean, but to mean what you say. It’s the quality of conforming one’s actions to one’s words, of reliably following through on one’s commitment. It’s more than the ability to make things happen — it’s making your own promises happen. (Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb)

“Miss Weinberg, are you nobly employed?”

Caught. Wandering the halls during a particularly boring statistics class. Yet my principal, Rabbi Binyamin Steinberg z”l, had such a novel way of wording his description of my wayward behavior. Was I nobly employed? Nope. But my dignity was intact as he walked me back to class, sharing some fascinating statistics recently mentioned in the news. (His general practice when escorting a student back to class — and believe me, I had a lot of experience — was to share such interesting information about the topic you were missing that you’d be sorry you’d ever left the classroom.)

Before opening my classroom door, he added, “Whatever you’re doing at the moment, do it well.”

This week’s double Torah portion, Mattos–Masei, opens with a lengthy and intricate discussion of the concepts of “the vow.” The Torah insists that the words we express must be taken very seriously; indeed, our words are sacred. Once a person, any person, simpleton or scholar, utters a commitment, he’s duty-bound to honor it.

From a Jewish perspective, “honesty” and “integrity” cannot be restricted to individual paragons of virtue, saints and holy men, but must become universal cultural norms.

This is why the laws of vows, unlike all the other laws of the Torah, are explicitly given to rashei hamatot, the chieftains of the tribes. This emphasizes that the sanctity of speech is not just a goal for a few spiritually gifted individuals. It must be enunciated as one of the essential mores of the entire tribe.

I remember one afternoon in ninth grade when Rabbi Steinberg gave my class mussar. We had been behaving immaturely, not seeing the greater picture… you name it, we were guilty. We took the message to heart. It was a subdued group that began the next lesson.

Then Rabbi Steinberg opened the door again.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “Everything I said before was true, but I think my tone was too strong. My apologies.”

A man of principles was my principal.

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 97a) relates the story of an immortal community, a legendary village that knew not death. This was because no one there ever lied. This idyllic existence came to an abrupt end, however, when a young person, eager to protect the privacy of his parent, told an inquiring visitor that his parent was not home. A harmless and well-intentioned remark, common to us all. A white lie, perhaps, but a lie nevertheless, and one that ruined forever the eternal life of that fabled village.

It wasn’t until 12th grade that we became privy to the drive that powered all his actions. Unbeknownst to Rabbi Steinberg, we’d planned an elaborate luncheon in his honor. Taken by surprise, he gave an impromptu speech and shared with us his memories as a young child, when, along with his parents, he’d escaped with Yeshivas Mir to Shanghai.

The living conditions were extremely rough. Care packages that arrived from far-off America made life much easier — and left an indelible impression on the young boy. The impression forged by those anonymous Jews helping another faceless, distant Jew, made this boy promise that when he got older, he, too, would dedicate his life to helping Klal Yisrael.

A young child’s promise — yet his commitment to his word shaped him into a man of integrity and shaped the future of so many generations of children.

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 701)

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