“Consider three things and you will not come to sin: Know what is above you: an eye that sees and an ear that hears, and all your deeds inscribed in the Book.” – Pirkei Avot 2:1
The Jewish people have always aspired to the highest level of morality. Consequently, any misstep rattles us to our core. As none of us is immune to temptation, it behooves us to discover new ways of suppressing it.
A congregant once overheard an exchange in a supermarket between a non-Jewish mother and young child. The mother had apparently caught the child attempting to shoplift a candy bar. She slapped the child’s hand and admonished him severely: “We do not steal!”
My congregant anticipated that this moment would be seized by the mother as a wonderful opportunity to broach with her young child the concept of values, morality, and decency. The mother, however, continued: “Don’t you see there are cameras all around the store? If you steal, you will get caught and go to jail. Is that what you want?”
Chalk that up as a missed opportunity. But is not this approach all too common in our community as well? How often do we communicate that the real crime is not the illicit behavior but rather getting caught (or worse: the real crime is getting caught and implicating others in order to receive more lenient treatment)?
What the mother neglected to convey was any sense of a higher morality. And what is often missing from our world is the reality that God is watching – that there really is a Master of the Universe who dictated His morality to us, that our personal perfection is measured by our ethical attainments in relation to our fellow man, and that there is reward and punishment for same.
Have we become too “sophisticated” to think in those terms? Is the awareness that “Hashem is here, Hashem is there, Hashem is truly everywhere” relegated only to songs for children? We might struggle to sense God’s presence during tefillah, but too many of us leave any consciousness of God in shul or the bet midrash, and His reality is missing from our workplaces and in our dealings with money.
Perhaps we were better off when we were less sophisticated and just lived with emunah peshutah.
An elderly Chofetz Chaim was once noticeably apprehensive, and when questioned he explained he was worried about his Final Judgment. He noted that having published and sold many books in his lifetime, perhaps he was culpable for mistakes that he or the proofreader had not caught. Or that the binding on some of the volumes was inferior.
“And in Heaven I will be asked how this can possibly be justified. Those book sales were a mikach ta’ut, and I will owe money to people whom I cannot repay. Surely I must recognize that these concerns are not simply scholarly musings about civil law and liabilities, but whether I will have to walk through the fires of Gehinnom because I stole money from another person.”
It is helpful, although not essential, to anticipate our eventual punishment for sin in such a graphic way. But even short of that, it suffices to recognize the grave harm caused to our quest for moral perfection by our indifference to theft or our lust for other people’s property. For many of us, challenges to our integrity would be rectified upon internalizing the words of Tehillim 16:8 – “I have set God before me always” – and the application of that formula to our daily lives.
One who is constantly aware of God’s presence cannot sin. Utilizing tefillah, especially Minchah in the middle of the work day, as a vehicle to reconnect with God and His moral code instead of just perceiving the act of prayer as the fulfillment of an obligation – a verbal quota that must be satisfied daily – could help in this regard.