To Tell the Truth| September 5, 2021
My mother asked me to give Mindy my bag of sweets, but I adamantly refused
When I was growing up in the postwar years, the perception of what was necessity and what was luxury was vastly different from today. Today’s children feel that their own cell phone is a necessity; then, sweets were considered a luxury saved for special occasions.
So when my mother informed me that she was throwing a party in honor of my third birthday, I began dreaming of the sweets I’d be consuming. When the big day finally arrived and my friends from the neighborhood came over, they were each given a place at the table with a little bag of sweets placed in front of them.
Then Mindy walked in. She had not actually been invited. When she saw the other toddlers go into my house, she just joined them. This created a problem: there were no sweets for her, because my mother had bought an exact amount. My mother asked me to give Mindy my bag of sweets, but I adamantly refused. I may have been only three years old, but I wasn’t stupid. I wasn’t going to wait another whole year for sweets!
My mother tried to reason with me. “She’s our guest and we can’t embarrass her,” she explained. “If she’s the only one without sweets, she’s going to cry.” Maybe I did understand, but I just didn’t care enough to give up my precious booty.
My mother would have just taken my bag and given it to Mindy, but then I, the birthday boy, would’ve thrown a tantrum. Instead she gave me a choice: Either I deliver a speech or I give my bag of sweets to Mindy. Without hesitation, I stood up on my chair and gave a speech. The Gettysburg Address it wasn’t; I just thanked my daddy and mommy for making me a birthday party and buying me sweets. As I basked in my moment of glory, enraptured with the applause, my mother gave me a hug that seemed to take just a bit too long. When I finally sat down, I saw that Mindy was happily making her way through my bag of sweets. While I had been distracted, my mother had stealthily given Mindy my bag. (It’s rather fascinating that my mother already knew, when I was only three, that I would never turn down an opportunity to give a speech!)
Forty years later, my mother was terminally ill. It was a time for tying up loose ends, for making amends for past wrongs. My mother told me that she wanted to apologize for taking my bag of sweets under ruse. Though her intentions were pure, her first responsibility was the chinuch of her children. She now realized that by teaching me to be devious and dishonest, she was derelict in her sacred duty. She went on to quote from Chazal that honesty, more than any other middah, is learned at home. It is more nurture than nature.
And she was always so honest at home! I was reminded of what my mother taught me many years earlier about the dishonesty of making a “false call.” In the era when long distance calls were directed through an operator, there were two kinds of calls you could choose from. The cheaper way was “station-to-station,” meaning that as soon as anyone picked up the phone on the other end, you started paying. The more expensive way was to tell the operator that you wished to make a “person-to-person” call to John Doe. The operator would then ask for Yankel Doe. You wouldn’t pay until Yankel Doe came to the phone.
In galus, Yidden often survived by finding ways to beat the system. In this case, the instinct was misplaced. To avoid paying the exorbitant person-to-person rate or wasting money calling station-to-station when the person they wished to speak to wasn’t available, the “false call’’ was devised. You would call person-to-person to Yankel Doe, Yankel Doe would respond in his distinct voice, “Yankel Doe is not available.” You would hang up, then immediately call back station-to-station, assured that Yankel Doe was there to answer the call. Another version of the false call would be calling person-to-person to Mr. Mazel Tov, who of course wasn’t home. That way you were able to convey your mazel tov wishes free of charge.
At a time when it seemed like “everyone was doing it,” my mother avoided the false call. While you’d be getting your message across free of charge, you’d be sending the wrong message to your children. It was not free; in fact, it was very costly. It was that cost that she still regretted, and sought to rectify, so many years after my third birthday party.
Rabbi Yosef Sorotzkin is the rosh yeshivah of Me’or Eliyohu in Kiryat Telshe Stone, Israel, and the author of Meged Yosef al HaTorah.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 877)
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