Bringing Wine to the Barrel: A Case for Honesty | Congregation Beth Am

Bringing Wine to the Barrel: A Case for Honesty

By Rabbi Jonathan Prosnit on
October 3, 2016

There was once a king who had plans to visit a town in his kingdom. In preparation for the king’s visit, the town decided to fill a giant barrel with wine and present it to the king upon his arrival. Where were they going to get so much wine to fill the giant barrel? They came up with a brilliant idea; each family of the town would bring one flask filled with wine and pour it into the giant barrel and this way the barrel would fill with wine.

They placed a giant barrel in the center of the town with a ladder reaching to the top and everyday people lined up to pour their flask of wine into the barrel.

The day finally arrived and the king visited the town. The people were so excited to present the king with this wonderful gift. The king was shown the barrel and was given a goblet. They filled his goblet with wine from the giant barrel. The towns people were shocked by the look on the king’s face as he drank the wine, what’s so special about this the king said  “It’s just plain water”.

It turns out that each towns person thought to themselves why should I be the one to pour in a flask of wine I will pour in water instead, I am sure no one will notice if there is just one flask of water among all that wine.  

You oenophiles, ignore the mixing of styles and vintages, scandalous no doubt, but not the point of this classic Chasidic story.  Minor deceptions by one person here, another family there, compounded to alter the fabric of a society.  An act that appears harmless, snowballs to cause embarrassment, damage reputations and challenge societal ideas of wrong and right.  Small acts, overtime, that may seem innocuous can easily fracture even the strongest internal moral compass.

Dan Ariely, author of the book The Honest Truth about Dishonesty, has done research that shows that people tend to cheat when society views their actions as “normal” and “acceptable.”  He says “In many areas of life, we look to others to learn what behaviors are appropriate and inappropriate. Dishonesty may very well be one of the cases where the social norms that define acceptable behavior are not very clear, and the behavior of others…can shape our ideas about what’s right and wrong.”

Did I report all my income on my income tax forms?  Is the 13 year old, really 12 as to get a discount on the ski slopes or at disney world? Is our resume exaggerated?  Do I really merit the handicap decal?  Did I complete all my community service hours to meet my High School quota?  Did a friend tip me off to an answer on this afternoon’s biology test?  

While I’m sure we would all say always be honest, we know that dishonest people have been around for ever.  However, in recent times it appears that the idea of lying and dishonesty as acceptable behavior have slipped into our culture.  To a certain degree that’s understandable, lying and trickery are natural inborn behaviors in human beings.  Pamela Meyer, the author, in her TED talk, How to Spot a Liar, notes that lying is part of a pattern that develops young. 

“It starts really, really early. How early?  Well babies will fake a cry, pause, wait to see who's coming and then go right back to crying. One-year-olds learn concealment. Two-year-olds bluff. Five-year-olds lie outright. They manipulate via flattery. Nine-year-olds, masters of the cover-up. By the time you enter college, you're going to lie to your mom in one out of every five interactions. By the time we enter this work world and we're breadwinners, we enter a world that is just cluttered with Spam, fake digital friends, partisan media, ingenious identity thieves, world-class Ponzi schemers, a deception epidemic -- in short ... a post-truth society. It's been very confusing for a long time now."

Take the recent news: 

In July, Bill Pennington, in the Times wrote about the ubiquity of embezzlement and corruption in, of all things, Little Leagues and other Youth Sports organizations noting that: “In the last five years, there have been hundreds of arrests and convictions in 43 states involving 15 sports,... And those are only the cases that have become public.”

Or star Olympian Ryan Lochte, winner of a dozen olympic medals, who fabricated a story of an armed-robbery, stranded some of his junior teammates to take the heat, and embarrassed the Rio Police force, because, despite immense privilege, he did not want to take responsibility for his own actions.

Or, more seriously, in Flint, where lies, deceptions and cover-ups by Michigan’s public officials created a quagmire where an entire city, one of the most vulnerable ones in our nation, suffered devastating health concerns due to high lead levels in the city’s water.  

Or cheating scandals at high schools and colleges across the country.  How about 2015 at Stanford, “where one faculty member reported allegations that may involve as many as 20 percent of the students enrolled in one of Stanford’s large introductory courses.”

Or at Dartmouth where 64 students faced suspension or other disciplinary action for cheating in, you can’t make this up, a sports ethics class.

Or at UNC-Chapel Hill where employees were found to have participated in an 18-year cheating scandal to help 3,100 students make good grades with little work.

Or at Palo Alto High, where according to a 2015 article in PALY’s magazine, Verde, a team of top seniors had banned together to cheat since their sophomore year . The Verde article said: "The level of organization, duration and sheer scope of the cheating that has taken place is unlike that of any group before.” 

And of course, you know where I’m going, the lack of honesty of this Presidential campaign.  Slander, insults, outrageous lies, malicious fabircations, and a general perception that the rules are different for some than others has turned our sacred endeavor in democracy into a season of pettiness, falsehoods and dishonesty.  In some circles, sneakiness and 'gaming the system' have become something to admire rather than a disgrace.   And, while me might not select our elected representatives for impeccable ethics, the moral standard that emanates from the West Wing, sets the tone for the behavior and dialogue for all of us.  The highest aspirations of our country stem from the White House and we should hold our candidates accountable.

Certainly, this isn’t a sermon on Presidential politics, and its definitely not a rabbi’s role to expand on the merits or flaws of candidates.  However, there are significant issues at stake in this election that are relevant in our Jewish world and that need to be looked at through the lens of Jewish texts, Jewish values, and Jewish tradition.   These include issues of policy and as well as issues of integrity.  My interest this morning, however, is less with specific candidates, but rather with the moral code that guides each of us daily and is the backbone for our relationships from work to school, synagogue to community, and family to government

Judaism has a lot to say about integrity and honesty.  Our ninth commandment, you shall not bear false witness (Ex 20),  Our holiness code:  You shall not steal, you shall not deal falesly and you shall not lie to one another (Lev 19).  Rabbi Shimon Ben Gamilel says in Pirkei Avot:  “upon three things the world stands  justice, truth and peace”   (1:18)    

Obligations for honesty continue in Leviticus - this time specifically regarding business practices:  “You shall not falsify measures of length, weight, or capacity. You shall have an honest balance, an honest weight, an honest measure.”   The Rabbis expand on this teaching of Torah, in the Mishnah (Bava Batra 5:10)  “The wholesaler must clean out his measures once every thirty days and the householder once every twelve months… The retailer cleans his measures twice a week and polishes his weights once a week; and cleans out his scale before every weighing.”  Our tradition teaches us to be scrupulous in our actions and our speech.  Our words are to be just as honest as our scales. 

But, Judaism doesn’t say that we should never lie.  Our sages offer that it is permissible to lie when the exact truth is outweighed by a higher value.  To save a life, to safeguard a reputation, to prevent a burden from falling on another person, to protect ourselves from thieves or criminals.  One school of thought in the Talmud says it is permitted for a person to deviate from the truth in the interest of peace.  Certainly, we agree with many of these - from the extreme - lies to a gestapo agent to protect a hidden family,  to the common - a nosy neighbor prying about intimate family details or to protect a surprise party.  Certainly, there are instances where lying is permissible, but our tradition, despite sometimes accepting the need for lying, never fails to repudiate hypocrisy and condemn immoral behavior.

But at times the truth, and how we handle it, is more murky.  Does this outfit make me look fat?  Did the email get sent to the spam folder?  Was it really a great sermon? Is mom really not home? Should a teacher exaggerate, even slightly,  on a college recommendation? Is it okay to bend the truth to impress a date? Is the check really in the mail? Is the bride beautiful?  On this last one there is a famous talmudic debate (Ketubot 16b, 17a) which discusses what to say to a bride on her wedding day if she is not beautiful.  The house of Shammai says tell the truth, one should praise the bride as she is. The house of Hillel, says we greet each bride with the words “kallah nana v’hamudah”, she is a beautiful and gracious bride.

I think most of us are likely in the camp of Hillel.  Rigidity is not a virtue.  Values of compassion, kindness and empathy are at times in tension with the exact truth.  But, let’s not ignore the house of Shammai, as a community let’s tack towards truth - let’s bring wine not water to the barrel.   Because lies are slippery - and a minor fib here, or a seeming "no harm, no foul" statement can cascade.  The justification of a lie as trivial, unthreatening and never a problem is simply inadequate. 

The ethicist Sisella Bok, in her book on lying writes:  Lies, half-truths and dishonesty are all around us.   “The fact that white lies, well-intentioned lies or lies not meant to injure anyone, are so common, provides their protective coloring.  And their very triviality, when compared to more threatening lies, make it seem unnecessary or even absurd to condemn them. But I want to ask whether the cumulative consequence are still without harm; and whether many lies defended as white are in fact harmful in their own right?” 

All too often, we learn to tolerate the deceptions and can justify many things, especially the lies we tell well.  And while sometimes our consciences are ravaged because of our deceit, more often than not, when it comes to lying our conscience is amazinglly accomodating and malleable.

This is what Rosh Hashanah is about - committing ourselves as individuals and as a society to being better than the culture that sits before us and the one has been set for our children.  We need to be cognizant of our own dishonest tendencies and make it clear to others that we stand as a people who don’t want to hear lies and who value integrity and honesty. Randall Balmer, who teaches the Dartmouth class I mentioned earlier, believes honor was once “very much a part of our society,” but that notion has faded over the decades. He says: “I think honor no longer is something that has a lot of resonance in society, and I suppose in some ways it’s not surprising that students would want to trade the nebulous notion of honor with what they perceive as some sort of advantage in professional advancement.”

A few years ago, Jim Caple of ESPN wrote an insightful piece on baseball player Alex Rodriguez entitled “Understanding A-Rod’s Infractions,” and he reminds us that steroid use — and indeed, cheating in general — is rarely done out of malicious intent: “Athletes don’t dope because they are bad, evil people. They dope because there is a very strong incentive to do so.

Consider this…scenario: You can take a substance that might carry a slight risk to your health…but that could also make you a better player. If you take it, you might help earn yourself millions upon millions of dollars and the acclaim of fans. Your friends and teammates also will benefit from your improved performance. And you know many others in your profession are already doing so. In fact, there is a decent chance you’ll need to take it to offset the advantage opponents have gained over you by taking the same thing.     Do you take it?”

I realize it’s hard.  Especially for you middle school, high school and college students.  We’ve created a milieu where the definition of success makes one feel that they need to cheat or bend the rules to get ahead.  You haven’t always had the best role models. Schemers and cheaters - in all fields and in all walks of life - abound including some who think nothing of their lies and who feel triumphant when they game the system.  Even worse, we all know people who cheat and lie and who get away with it.  Be they our colleagues or our classmates.  Be it cheating on our taxes or on an exam.   It’s hard to live a life of integrity when those around you are not.

The cheating and plagiarism at Dartmouth or PALY or all our other local high schools doesn’t exist in a vacuum.  The journalist who stretches the truth for a story, or the researcher that fabricates just one piece of data is part of a larger environment.  We haven’t done enough, I haven’t done enough to say - and quoting Pamela Meyer again - "Hey, my world, our world, it's going to be an honest one. My world is going to be one where truth is strengthened and falsehood is recognized and marginalized. And when you do that, the ground around you starts to shift just a little bit .. and that’s the truth.”

No doubt, in the coming year each of us will lie, be decitful, and dishonest - but let’s not accept that as acceptable.  Can this be our message today?  A commitment to honesty and integrity.  A recognition that we as a collective have the ability to push the needle towards truth, even if means, at times, we are swimming up stream.  Pay your taxes, merge when it’s your turn, don’t cheat, tell the truth.  Each of us, today and everyday.  

Back to our opening story.  Let’s tell it a different way.  The town placed the the giant barrel in the center of town and the each family brought their flask of wine. The day finally arrived and the king visited the town. The people were so excited to present the king with this wonderful gift. The king was shown the barrel and was given a goblet. They filled his goblet with wine from the giant barrel. The townspeople were shocked by the look on the king’s face as he drank the wine …

“This is the most delicious wine that I have ever tasted,” said the king.  “I’ve been to communities throughout the world, and never have I tasted wine as pure and rich as this wine.  This is a community that relies on one another. This is a town with character.  This is a community that stands together.  You are a people that value honesty.”  

This is the lesson of Rosh Hashana.  We are judged as individuals and as a community.  We lift each other up, we  push the scales towards fairness, we delight in honesty.  This is our challenge, for the sake of our country, for the sake of our kids, for the sake of all of us.


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