One of the most tragic stories I’ve ever heard was recounted by the late Canadian-Jewish writer Mordecai Richler. Raised in an orthodox Jewish home, Richler worked as a teenager in his family’s store. One day, as he was tidying up behind the counter, he discovered a second set of the weights his father used to measure out goods upon the store’s old-fashioned scales.
Richler immediately recognized these weights for what they were: dishonest. By using a lighter set of weights when selling, his father would have to give his customers less for their money. By using a heavier set of weights when buying, he would get more for his own money.
The young Mordecai Richler immediately recalled the prohibition from this week’s Torah portion: You shall not have in your pouch separate weights – a large one and a small one … a perfect and honest weight you shall have, a perfect and honest measure you shall have, so that your days will be lengthened in the land… (Deuteronomy 25:13-15).
When Richler confronted his father, he was told: “That’s Torah; this is business.”
Mordecai Richler decided at that moment that he would never again have anything to do with Torah. He never did.
The Torah not only prohibits the use of dishonest weights; it prohibits us from even having them in our possession. Rashi comments that, if we violate this prohibition, we will have nothing, implying that one whose business dealings are less than upright will see no profit in the long run.
But Rashi’s words suggest even more. Why does the Torah forbid even ownership of such weights? Because there is no purpose for them other than dishonesty. The temptations of the material world are so compelling and so persistent that it is not enough for us to resist them – we have to distance ourselves from them to the limit of our ability. If we do not, we might escape their influence ourselves, but we will not be able to protect our children who, once exposed, may not have the strength of character or the resolve to follow the path of virtue.
We can always find endless rationalizations for sidestepping the law. It’s only a few pennies per customer; my suppliers are charging me too much to begin with; everybody else does the same thing. In the short term, we may see benefit from our infidelity. But in the long term, when our children either absorb our distorted values or recognize our hypocrisy and reject Torah values altogether, then we will have cut ourselves off from the future. Without the legacy of our children to carry on our defining mission, we will truly, as Rashi tells us, be left with nothing.
By trusting in ultimate justice, by distancing ourselves from dishonest practices, then we will gain more than success in business. “If you do so,” Rashi tells us, “you will truly have everything.” The self-respect that accompanies virtue is its own reward in the short run; the gratification of seeing children grow up with self-respect will be the reward in the long run.
#1 by David Rich on September 11, 2008 - 4:42 pm
Dear Rabbi Goldson:
In my younger years, I devoured the novels of Richler, Malamud, Roth, and many other brilliant, but seriously warped, genre of Jewish writers. I enjoyed them for their rich descriptions of what I believed to be Jewish culture. There was so much angst, so much bitterness, so little faith, belief, trust, or knowledge of the positive Source of life in their lives, their writing. Richler’s description of Jewish life in mid-20th century Montreal was fascinating. Your article helps me understand what happened to him.
I can’t sit through movies anymore, but maybe that was the main theme in “Lies my Father Told Me,” a Montreal-based film that seemed like it was Richler, but I don’t recall who wrote it.
Memories of reading so many descriptive novels and pieces describing the Jewish immigrant generation and next generation are still, unfortunately, very clear in my head. Music and poetry of Leonard Cohen. So painful and sad. The wrenching break from Europe destroyed more Jewish souls than some of our worst enemies.
Thank you for stirring up these thoughts and letting me appreciate the fact that I don’t read these writers anymore.
#2 by Ron Kean on September 12, 2008 - 3:09 pm
Malamud was better than Roth.
This is a heavy topic.