For Your Name, Which Was Desecrated

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The final stanza of Eli Zion, the last kinnah recited in many shuls on Tisha B’Av, reads, “. . . for Your Name, which was desecrated by the mouth of those who arose to torment her . . . .” Following the interpretive principle that the conclusion (chatima) is determinative, we infer that the greatest tragedy associated with Tisha B”Av is the Chilul Hashem caused by the destruction of the Temple.

That insight strikes with particular force today. What gentile looks at us and thinks, “Perhaps they really are the Chosen People?” What non-religious Jew looks to the Torah world and finds his curiosity aroused about the source of such refinement and simple mentschlikeit? The janitor in an Orthodox-owned factory recently asked his boss, “If you really are the Chosen People, why are you all so corrupt?”

We each carry around a set of adult pacifiers to grab onto at such moments. Who has not repeated many times Rabbi Berel Wein’s famous line, “Don’t judge Judaism by the Jews.” But the Torah is judged, for better or worse, by the behavior of Torah Jews. Meeting a Torah Jew who exemplified something he or she has never before encountered serves as a major impetus for virtually every ba’al teshuva.

Rabbi Zev Leff likes telling a story of the Telshe Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Chaim Mordechai (Mottel) Katz. A non-religious Jew once asked him, “Rabbi, how do you explain all these religious Jews who lie, steal, and cheat on their income taxes.”

Reb Mottel replied, “I have the same question about all those religious Jews who eat on Yom Kippur, drive on Shabbos, and don’t keep kosher.” The man looked perplexed. “Those aren’t religious,” he said. “Well, neither are those you mentioned,” Reb Mottel replied.

Unfortunately, writing all those who lie, steal and cheat out of the ranks of Orthodoxy only takes us so far. For one thing, the former view themselves and are viewed as others as frum Jews.

Nor can their self-image be dismissed as simply a bluff. An Orthodox prison chaplain relates how he once brought a prisoner a set of the Four Species for Sukkos. The prisoner, however, rejected the esrog, telling the chaplain, “I’m makpid (strict) on a pitom.” The chaplain could not resist asking, “About a pitom you are strict, and about defrauding widows you are lenient?” But obviously the prisoner did feel some connection to Hashem. Otherwise, why would he have cared about the pitom either?

If we carried Rabbi Katz’s answer to its logical conclusion, where would we draw the line? Most of us are not candidates for federal penitentiary. But how many would feel comfortable having Rabbi Shimon Schwab, zt”l, examine our books, if he were still alive? A rabbi once called Rabbi Schwab and began his question, “A frum Jew who runs a cash business . . .” He had gotten no further when Rabbi Schwab shouted, “WHAT!”

Thinking that Rabbi Schwab was hard of hearing, the rabbi began again, “A frum Jew who runs a cash business . . .” Again, Rabbi Schwab shouted, “WHAT!” After the third try, Rabbi Schwab explained that running a cash business – i.e.., evading taxes – cannot be reconciled with being a frum Jew.

Even if we could pass the Rabbi Schwab bookkeeping test, how many of us can say that we have never lowered the respect for Torah Jews by our public behavior – e.g., the way we drive, reacting angrily when irritated by a sales clerk? I know I couldn’t pass that test.

NO DOUBT many Torah Jews could pass the Rabbi Schwab bookkeeping test. They just don’t happen to be the ones who receive any media attention. Someone raised in the Breuer’s kehillah of Washington Heights once told me that he had never ever experienced the slightest temptation to cheat on his income taxes. Just as the prisoner mentioned above could not imagine taking an esrog without a pitom, he could not imagine trying to short change the government.

That contrast suggests that much Chilul Hashem results from an educational failure. We are failing to transmit what Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv calls the central educational message for our time – i.e., the Name of Heaven should become beloved through your actions. In the Haftorah read on Tisha B’Av, the prophet Yirmiyahu offers Hashem’s explanation of the Churban: “Because they have forsaken My Torah, which I set before them, and have not obeyed My voice, nor walked therein” (Yirmiyahu 9:12).

If forsaking Hashem’s Torah meant failing to study Torah or observe the commandments, Rabbeinu Yonah asks, how can we understand the inability the Prophets and Sages to identify the causes of the Churban (Nedarim 81a)? Rabbeinu Yonah explains that the generations preceding the Destruction learned Torah and fulfilled the mitzvos. What they failed to do was give sufficient thought to what it means to obey His voice and walk in His ways – i.e., to inquire what kind of human being Hashem seeks to fashion through His mitzvos. Chazal express this idea by saying that they did not recite bircas HaTorah (the blessings prior to learning Torah).

German Jews raised in the Hirschian tradition, with its constant emphasis on Mentsch Yisrael and the educational message conveyed by every single detail of the mitzvos, are protected against viewing mitzvos as a mere checklist of commands, with no implications for our character development. Rabbi Schwab’s prophetic denunciations of all forms of Chilul Hashem, which are currently circulating widely, capture this aspect of the Hirschian tradition.

The Sfas Emes asks why Moshe Rabbeinu reproved the Bnei Yisrael at such length on the eve of entering the Land. After all, the perpetrators of those sins had already died in the Desert. He answers that it is the task of each generation to correct the failings of preceding generations and that requires knowing those failings.

When it comes to countering the Chilul Hashem represented by the destruction of the Temple, however, we seem to be adding to rather than repairing the damage. The need for each of us to dedicate himself to Kiddush Hashem in every action, large or small, public or private, is the most important lesson of Tisha B’Av 5769.

I would like to thank Rabbi Dovid Miller and Rabbi Zev Leff for the above insights.

This article was originally published in Mishpacha.

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17 Responses

  1. Garnel Ironheart says:

    > I have no doubt that if I bought tefillin from this sofer which were later found to contain photocopied parshioys, I would feel confident in going to the rabbonim, the vaad and all of my friends

    The way things are today, you’d likely be told not to do any of this by the rabbonim who would assure you that they’d deal it with “quietly” and that if you did go public you’d be ostracized and called a mumar.

  2. JR says:

    Ori/Dr Bill,
    My point is not to justify tax evasion, or to say “everyone is doing it”, my point is it’s not always so “black and white”. you mention PVT Jones in Iraq, how about aid to the PLO? This argument can go both ways, but IN CASE of an unjust tax (and I’m not talking about any specific cases) do you have permission to evade and how do you decide?

  3. Raymond says:

    To Stefan, the thing is, once a person announces to the world through his mode of dress or other overt means that he is religious, he is supposed to be a representative of G-d’s Chosen People. But in order to meaningfully be in such a category, one has to deserve it through one’s actions. If one cannot get oneself to behave even in a minimally decent manner, then one should not advertise one as such.

    I know of at least one Rabbi in Israel who, when asked if he is religious, answers, “Not yet.” That, it seems to me, is the right answer. That particular Rabbi does dress in an unmistakably religious manner, but based on my observations of him ever since I first heard his provocative lectures in Jerusalem back in the 1980’s, he probably deserves to be dressed that way.

    I do not expect religious people to be absolutely righteous, but I do expect them to behave at least as decently as people who are not religious or not even Jewish. But like I said before, my experiences have too often been opposite of such reasonable expectations. I have also noticed that the worse the behavior is, the less apologetic and the more that Rabbi feels he is justified. But if he is doing G-d’s Will as he believes, then I have no interest in living such a lifestyle.

    As for Viktor Frankl’s quote, I take it on its most literal meaning. What matters even more than what religion one was born into or practices, or what what one believes or does not believe, is how one behaves toward one’s fellow human being. I happen to think that as a general rule, from a large historical perspective, that Jews, especially traditional ones, do behave better than virtually any other group, but I have also been terribly disappointed by now often this has not been the case. Every Mormon I have ever met has been super sweet and super nice; let us try to at least be as good as the Mormons.

  4. dr. bill says:

    Nichsahl – i applaud your integrity and suggest returning to the store and insist on paying by credit card. JR – I hope you are joking! There is a large difference between an aggressive bias in interpreting tax codes and fraud; even the tax code recognizes that in the penalties it applies.

    And btw your sofer may not have been (just) avoiding sales tax – in many states religious items are exempt. i suspect income tax fraud.

  5. CR says:

    “what is the government imposed an extra tax on Jews”

    Then we have far worse problems to worry about than our own Chillul Hashem causing behaviors.

    “does the justness of the government play a role? ”

    You’ve answered your own question here.

    “does the fact that the head of the IRS (Timothy Geithner) not pay taxes play a role?”

    That is a fundamentally irrelevant consideration. However, when people tell me “everyone else is doing it” I usually retort that Gehinnom is very big and has plenty of room for “everyone”.

  6. Nichshal says:

    Nichshal here—

    Thank you for your responses.
    Orthonomics—I had the inclination to return it and explain why, but I just cant imagine actually doing it. I probably don’t have enough backbone or else it feels too self righteous or yuhera-dik to me.

    JR- Yes, there is a line to draw somewhere, but do you really think sales taxes are discriminatorily applied? this is hardly an extra tax on Jews. I can’t imagine making THAT argument in shamayim (besides, are we going to deduct the various grants that yeshivos and all sort of mosdos get form the government, not to mention the fact that by making donations tax deductible, the gov essentially funds a decent portion of the budgets of all religious institutions?)

    But leinyanenu: What is really bothering me is that when you go to a stam store you are essentially looking for kedusha and trust, and I feel like I got neither. How many of us actually unroll the mezuza when we buy it, and even if we do, are we qualified to know whether something is amiss? (Not me). When is the last time you actually saw the inside contents of your tefillin? Are there even parshiyos inside? (I recall hearing some scandal like this a few years ago). And when the sofer tells you that the teffilin need to be fixed (thereby earning him a fee) is he telling the truth? And does anyone verify whether it was indeed repaired?
    What more, its fairly clear that this was basically “store policy” not some isolated incident. If he does most of his business in cash, he most likely doesn’t report it on his federal income taxes, FICA etc., and who knows what else. Is this a person who should be a sofer?

    After thinking about it some more, my little mayseh cuts to the core of what we’ve been grappling with from Potsville to Deal. I have no doubt that if I bought tefillin from this sofer which were later found to contain photocopied parshioys, I would feel confident in going to the rabbonim, the vaad and all of my friends and making sure everyone knew not to trust this sofer, and my guess is I would probably be applauded for doing so. And if I did not go public with it and people later found out that I knew, the tzibbur would be justifiably mad at me. But given that the issue is tax evasion, I (we) are much more ambivalent about making a big stink over this—not only in regarding to the moser issue, but even regarding creating a kol in the community. If I were to take up this issue, my guess is that many roll there eyes and then (correctly) begin pointing out the many areas of halakha and life where I could use some improvement. Hence the most I can bring myself to do is write an anonymous post on a blog, making sure to conceal the identity of all involved, and asking for some guidance. Is this the right approach? Are there better (realistic alternatives?

    -still seeking advice.

  7. Garnel Ironheart says:

    An excellent article.

    Perhaps two problems are:
    a) Lots of folks learn Orach Chayim. After all, it’s relevant on a daily basis and the Mishnah Berurah makes it a lot simpler to figure out the psak on many issues. There’s even a handy English translation. However, not many folks learn Choshen Mishpat to the same depth, possibly because, as one rav once told me, “they don’t want to know what’s in there”.
    b) Even within Orach Chayyim, there are chapters and chapters on ritual behaviours such as lighting Shabbos candles and how to check your esrog. How many chapters are there on decent, Godly behaviour and to what excruciating detail do they go into? Not nearly as much.
    Perhaps because decent behaviour is such common sense that the halacha didn’t have to spell out all the nitty gritty details. Perhaps because the Mechaber knew it was a lost cause. (I hope not) But I think that also plays a role. If people who were makpid on memorizing dappim of Gemara and various sections of the Shulchan Aruch were to put the same effort into those few chapters on decent behaviour, if people were to agonize over possible lashon horo the way they do over an unknown hechsher’s validity, we would be a better people for it.

  8. Leah says:

    Comment for Raymond: I am sorry that you experienc(ed) yidden whom have been ritual observers and not decent people. It saddens me to think of this even though I do see it, too. I definately try to behave in a mentchlikeit way so that this very thing does not happen.
    I’ll leave you with this one: When I was newly married I worked for a seforim store in a large city and one day a car pulled up as I was walking down the street back to the store from my lunch break. A woman got out and wanted to hand me a coupon for something that she thought I could hand to someone in the jewish ecommunity who could perhaps use it. She did not want to throw it out as it was a valuable coupon etc….so, as she is standing there talking one of the things she said was, “….because I see you care…” (She gestured to my clothing (the frum style). I always remembered this, Raymond. I was newly frum and in my opinion it was thru this woman that Hashem was conveying a message: You have now accepted a new lifestyle and a new way of dressing that conveys a message to the outer world of both jews and non-jews and please be careful how you behave because there are many who are looking at you for guidance or just looking (taking note)
    You are correct, Raymond, jews need to behave not just for the outside world, yet for their children and for themselves…..
    As a frum jew I understand that i must behave well and that there is no difference between public and private. This I believe is key: When a person behaves well in public and not well in private something is not being converyed properly. Nebuch…… Hashem is ALWAYS watching…..

  9. Ori says:

    JR: does the fact that the head of the IRS (Timothy Geithner) not pay taxes play a role?

    Ori: Sorry, but this reads like a poor excuse. If we were unfairly targeted it might be one thing. But how does the corruption of a few high officials affect your responsibility to pay for Pvt. Jones who is right now risking his life in Iraq, or the maintenance of the interstate highway system?

  10. JR says:

    Nichshal,

    what is the government imposed an extra tax on Jews, as has often been the case in history. Would you still feel guilty about trying to avoid it? where do we draw the line? does the justness of the government play a role? does the fact that the head of the IRS (Timothy Geithner) not pay taxes play a role?

  11. charedilite says:

    I’m asking for eitzoz for what might be a proper takanna.

    Nichshal-
    Depends on the state. In NJ we have “Use Tax”. If you buy something from another state that doesn’t have sales tax and you use it in NJ, you must pay NJ a Use Tax, which is equal to NJ Sales Tax. There is a line on your NJ income tax form to declare it and pay it. This could be used to pay tax on something purchased in NJ when sales tax was (illegally) not charged.

    You could also contact the sale tax division of the state involved, explain that you belatedly realized that a merchant might not have collected sales tax, and that you would like to send it in. You can decline to name the merchant, stating that you aren’t absolutely certain the tax wasn’t paid (which you aren’t- only pretty sure!).

  12. Orthonomics says:

    I can only hope that the sofer who we have bought tefillin and mezuzot from are honest businessman. I can’t imagine how an item that is acquired through such means is truly kosher.

    But, no matter what the price and no matter what the method of payment is, as per tax law, he is the one responsible to make an accounting and pay up, although I too would feel like a participant in tax evasion for handing over the cash rather than a check or plastic for the purchase after he basically advertise the intent to defraud.

    It would take a bit of a backbone, but perhaps you could march into the store and return the item for cash back and let the store owner know exactly why and that you want to be kosher with all of your dealings and later buy the same item from a sofer who, at the very least, has the good sense not to state his intents to defraud (can you imagine someone stating his intent to cheat on his wife or break Shabbat to a stranger that walks into his store?).

    Beyond that, perhaps you can call the owner and inform his that cash is also taxable, speak to a Rav regarding the sofer’s practices since such advertising could potentially be an issue for the kehillah, or just try to go forward by paying through check/debit/credit and rest easy knowing that he, not you, is responsible for the taxes no matter what the method of payment.

  13. Nichshal says:

    I recently purchased talis and tzitzis at a Sta”M store in a large and well-known frum community in the US. The sofer was busy at work when I got there, and stopped to help me select the right size and fit (who knew there were different talis fits these days). When it came time to pay he quoted me a round number. When I pulled out my credit card he said “well in that case we’ll have to pay Uncle Sam” and proceeded to calculate the tax. I usually do not carry much cash, but had just been to the ATM machine and had enough to cover this relatively small purchase. Without thinking much, I handed over the cash and was nichshal be’aveirah.

    As I was leaving, I saw that same scenario play itself out with another customer in the store who was picking up mezuzos, (and paid cash).

    Before I start moralizing, its obvious that I participated in cheating the government every bit as much as the sofer. And to that end, I’m asking for eitzoz for what might be a proper takanna. (I cant just send the state of __ a check for the money owed.

    But I also cannot stop wondering as to the kashrus of the Stam and other articles sold in this store. Was everything done and checked kadas ukedin? Probably. Does it matter? Not sure how to think about it. Chaveirim, please advise.

  14. The Contarian says:

    Something has bothered me since I was a child. How ccold a from Jew who every morning says “I place Hashem before me always” ever say “who eill know?” when it comes ro finacial chicanery or any other matter between man and man?

    I found the answer in chumash vayikra parshas kedoshim. The Torah says “you shall fear Hashem” after demanding that we honor the elderly and the wise and not put a stumbling block before the blind. Rashi comments that since many of the situations in which the above arise are “matters” of the heart becuase the other person involved is unaware of what is really going on, the Torah has to tell us that “what he does not know will not hurt him” is unacceptable.

    But that explanation begs the question above. If one believes in an All-Seeing-Eye there is no place for such thoughts in his heart. If not, why are commandments between man and man singled out. Does any one know the real level of “ritual” observence of his fellow?

    IMHO, the Torah is telling us there is a great danger that the fear of man will eclipse the fear of The Almighty when both are operative. The fear of man is of someting real and tangible, the fear of the Almoghty is of Something trancendental amd supernatural.

    Do we refrain from striking a 300 pound violnce-prone ape of a man with a bad temper beacuse the Torah forbids it or because we fear getting “killed”? If that person were miraculously brought down to size would we stiil fear the Torah and not hit him?

    Unlike a solar eclipse, when the moon leaves and the sun reappears, in the spiritual world when the fear of man is removed, the fear of Hashem often does not. That is why the Torah tells us to fear the Almighty in the contexr of bein adam lechaveiro becuase we are much more likey to lose that fear when the fear of man is removed.

  15. Stefan says:

    Raymond, I would venture qualifying your observations.
    Re Frankl’s quotation – how you define ‘decent’ is the rub.
    Also, the problematic behaviour you have experience ‘too many’ times with frum people may also have something to do with your own expectations. You see someone wearing a kippa etc and you place upon them idealised expectations. I’m not saying that’s unfair – those of us who are identifiably ‘religious’ place this responsibility upon ourselves. I know that when I started wearing a kippa I was acutely self-conscious about the image I gave through my behaviour. Alas, once wearing a kippa becomes habitual that self-consciousness wanes. The trick is to maintain that sense that all eyes (and particularly His eyes) are upon us at all times. It’s hard to do, particularly on a hot day with several screaming kids biting at your heels and shlepping a load of shopping, not having had time to eat lunch and running late for dinner (for example!). I’m not seeking sympathy; it was my choice to become frum and wear a kippa. However, it strikes me that the failure of myself and ‘too many’ people like me to meet your expectations seems to clash with your declared ability to ‘look past the rituals, instead focusing on people as people, beyond all the constumes, gimmicks and fanfare’. Such transcendence of the human propensity to judge others is something to which every frum Jew would aspire. Indeed, Hashem expects it of us – no matter what our level of religiosity.

  16. Raymond says:

    I have unfortunately had the experience all too often of formally religious Jews being extra scrupulous when it came to doing those commandments that are between Man and G-d, yet left a whole lot to be desired when it came to basic human decency. This proves especially disappointing when Rabbis and sometimes their wives have behaved in such a way. In fact, having too many of these experiences is precisely what has turned me off from living such a life. But there is a silver lining to this cloud, as I have learned to look past the rituals, instead focusing on people as people, beyond all the costumes, gimmicks, and fanfare.

    Perhaps this phenomenon of putting religous ritual above basic human decency is all too common simply because having the discipline to do the ritual commandments, is nowhere nearly as difficult as behaving decently toward one’s fellow human beings. Being nice is apparently something that only a handful of people value. Viktor Frankl, author of the book Man’s Search for Meaning, I think put it best when he said, “There are only two kinds of people in the world: the decent, and the indecent.”

  17. Ori says:

    Can you reduce the cost of the Orthodox lifestyle, or change the education system to prepare graduates for more lucrative careers? Either would reduce the temptation to cheat on finances.