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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Honesty and The Jewish Community III: Rabbi C.

(continued from here)

Back in high school, I can only recall three instances where I felt that lying might be the best course of action. In the first, I believe I or the friend I was with misled someone; in the second, I avoided the question; and in the third, I believe I told the truth. To this day, all three of the stories bother me for different reasons, but the important lessons actually come from the people who placed me in the situations by asking difficult questions.

WITS, my high school, has a number of interesting rules. Some people may accept these as baseline givens; others may think them strange if not outright crazy. A recent news story involving a basketball player at a religious university touches on what I believe to be an important point: Regardless of what one thinks of a set of rules, if a person accepts those rules upon themselves, then breaking those rules means accepting the consequences as well. In WITS, some rules included no talking to girls, no non-Jewish music and no headphones, no movies, and no sports betting or pools.

Being a relatively poor out-of-town kid in high school, extended off weekends where people could choose to go home if they wished often meant I was one of a handful of students who would remain in the school. This was actually awesome to those of us who stuck around - we had a lot of free time and freedom, we would make some really great food, and we would often go have fun we otherwise didn't have time to do, from playing golf at a local public par-3 course to attending Bucks and Brewers games. The longer weekends, though, could get pretty boring, and when I was a sophomore a junior friend asked me if I wanted to come with him to see a new movie, Enemy of the State, starring Will Smith. When we came back, one of the rebbeim was heading out from the campus and asked us where we'd been. On the way back we had stopped at OpenPantry (like 7/11), so my friend replied we were on the way back from there. The rebbe seemed skeptical, but simply noted that we are required to check out before going off-campus, which we apologized for.

A year and a half later, our principal Rabbi C. confronted me in the parking lot of the campus after asking me to walk him to his car. As any high school kid might be, I was a bit nervous. However, he asked me a very surprising question: "Are you aware of an NCAA pool in the yeshiva?" The evening before, a friend who often helped me run the annual underground pool had said "Ezzie, I think this year you should let a couple other people run the pool. The Rabbeim are certainly going to be on the lookout this year and the first person they're going to ask is you." [I had been previously shut down for running a pool.] We agreed that the others would run the pool, and I wouldn't be involved at all now that it was already set up. I replied to Rabbi C. that I was not running a pool this year. He then replied "I didn't ask if you were running a pool; I asked if you were aware of one." I again replied simply that I was not running one, and he did not press the point, letting me go.

About one year later, during my senior year, for whatever reason the Super Bowl (which until then had been shown at WITS albeit with no commercials) was not going to be shown - perhaps because of the way winter break worked out, I can't recall. I had a conversation with Rabbi C. about it, and was told essentially that it was not being shown despite the case I made for it, so I decided to watch it at a friend's house, who ironically was an employee of WITS. The next day, Rabbi C. called me in and told me that he was upset about what I did and I was to receive an in-house suspension - forced to remain in my room - until such time as I understood what I did wrong. The next day at lunch, I came down to speak to him and explained that while I believe I understood why he was so upset, I did not understand the extent of the punishment. He explained that he was dismayed that I had lied to him, and when I was taken aback, he said he had specifically told me during our conversation not to watch the game elsewhere and I had said I would not. I answered that I honestly did not recall such a statement and that I thought I had agreed not to press further that it would not be shown in the school, and he lifted the suspension. While he was certain he had said not to go elsewhere, he believed me that I had not recalled it and therefore it wasn't right to punish me further. (He also removed the grade losses I'd have incurred from the suspension, changing them to excused absences.)

In all three situations, and in other instances which occurred with friends throughout high school, the key was how our Rabbeim approached honesty and integrity. Generally, if a person was being asked about something that they may have done, it was with good reason. Yet unless there was specific evidence that showed someone was lying, students were taken at their word. It was up to us to be honest, not up to them, and if we made a statement, we were believed to be truthful about whatever it is we were saying. Perhaps more importantly, they never wanted us to lie or feel compelled to lie - they would rather stop a conversation than make it worse by forcing the student to lie to hide something or protect someone, at least in my experience.

Thinking back to and about WITS, one of the traits I find most interesting about both the Rabbeim and my friends who went there is how almost without exception they were - and are to this day - incredibly honest. There are certainly numerous reasons this may be true, particularly the incredible focus on mussar and the specific emphasis on avoiding rationalization of improper behavior. But this approach alone would not be enough: Seeing our Rabbeim living it day to day was by far the best example of all. For all the disagreements we may have had with them as immature or even as rarely correct high school kids, there was never a question as to the integrity of the Rabbeim, particularly our principal and rosh yeshiva Rabbi C. He felt and taught us that to succeed in life, we must be fully honest not only with others, but particularly with ourselves. Unless a person is honest with himself, he cannot be honest with his life or with others.

(to be continued)

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