Integrity as a Jewish Value – Shavuot Evening 2022
by Marsha T. Shulman
“Integrity” is a multi-faceted word that has three (3) distinct meanings according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary sitting on my bookshelf. These are:
- A firm adherence to a code, especially of moral or artistic values; incorruptibility;
- An unimpaired condition or soundness;
- The quality or state of being complete or undivided.
Although some aspects of “integrity” can be applied to inanimate objects, as well as to persons, in this article I will be talking specifically about “integrity” from the standpoint of “a firm adherence to a code of moral values.”
Therefore, when “integrity” is talked about as a character trait, it is clear from the use of the word “integrity” that I am talking about a person who is upstanding, honest and honorable. Having “integrity” further means that a person follows through or fulfills on his promises to others or if he can’t keep a commitment, as soon as he realizes that he can’t keep it, he immediately communicates with the person to whom he made the promise and makes it right by either redefining or rescheduling the commitment in a manner that is agreeable to both parties. “Integrity” boils down to being true to oneself and one’s ideals, and being one’s authentic self at all times. “Integrity” is being honest about who you are and what you say.
You may be asking yourself, what is the difference between “honesty” and ‘integrity”? Stephen Covey, the preeminent self-help guru of the 90’s, concisely articulated the precise definitions and the difference between the two words in the following passage from his book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” Covey writes, “Integrity includes but goes beyond honesty. Honesty is conforming our words to reality. Integrity is conforming reality to our words — in other words, keeping promises and fulfilling expectations. This requires an integrated character, a oneness, primarily with self but also with life.”
Werner Erhard, the founder of the EST training, whose “work” is now offered around the world by a successor company, Landmark Education, is quoted as saying: “Integrity is often thought of as moral uprightness and steadfastness—making the “good” choices, doing the “right thing.” In fact, it is far more than that. Integrity is actually a phenomenon in and of itself. It has to do with authenticity—being true to ourselves—and it is the foundation for power and effectiveness. It is a home, a foundation, a continuing commitment—a way of being and acting that shapes who we are.”
Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, Executive V.P. Emeritus of The Orthodox Union, who is a fan of the above-mentioned Stephen Covey, stated in his article “Distinguishing between Honesty and Integrity,” published on July 31, 2019, “Honesty for Covey, and I for one agree, is the virtue describing reality exactly as it is, of telling the truth.” Rabbi Weinreb further says: “For Judaism, truth, emet, is more than just a virtue. It is one of the three fundamental principles, along with justice and peace, upon which the world stands.” He further writes, “As rare as the trait of honesty is, the trait of integrity – the ability not only to say what you mean, but to mean what you say – is even more difficult to find. Integrity is the quality of conforming one’s actions to one’s words, of reliably following through on one’s commitment.”
Even in the 1600’s, in a line spoken in Act 1, Scene 3 of Hamlet, playwright William Shakespeare weighed in on the definition of “integrity” saying, “This above all: to thine own self be true, it must follow, as the night the day, Thou cans’t not be false to any man.” When one is true to one’s word (which is being true to one’s self), one cannot be but true to any man.
The above precepts of “Integrity” – of doing the right thing that is expected of us – are embedded in the foundation of Judaism and examples abound in the teachings of the Torah and the Talmud. In fact, the actions that represent an “out of integrity” and how an “out of integrity” is to be corrected are prescribed in the Bible in the Book of Leviticus, Chapter 5, Verses 20-26, as follows:
20 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying,
21 If anyone sins, and betrays the Lord by dealing falsely with his neighbor concerning a deposit, a pledge, or an object of value he has taken or he has oppressed his neighbor in any such way;
22 or he had found that which was lost, yet he denies it and swears falsely to a lie regarding his actions,
23 and it shall be, if he has sinned, and is guilty, that he shall return that which he has stolen, or the thing that he had gotten by oppression, or that which had been deposited with him as collateral, or the article which he had found;
24 or anything else about which he had sworn falsely, he shall restore it in full, and shall pay the principal and add a fifth part more to it. He shall
give it to its rightful owner on the day that he repents for his guilt.”
25 He shall bring an unblemished ram of equal value from his flock to the Kohen, the priest, as his guilt offering for the Lord.
26 And the Kohen shall make atonement for him before the Lord, and the guilty one shall be forgiven for his sin.
The Torah also provides another lesson about keeping our word that can be found in the Torah portion Matot Masei – in the Book of Numbers, Chapter 30: Verse 2 – Chapter 36: Verse 13. Sometimes we overextend ourselves and make promises that we cannot possibly keep, so can a vow thus expressed be annulled?
Rabbi Weinreb speaks to this as well: “The Torah, ever practical, answers ‘yes,’ and describes some of the procedures designed to release a person from his or her vows. Most well-known among the “ceremonies” releasing us from our personal vows is the Kol Nidre prayer that ushers in Yom Kippur, a statement in which we declare our past vows null and void. It allows us to begin the Jewish New Year with a clean slate.” Judaism teaches us the primary importance of keeping our word, but it does not lose sight of our human frailties and limitations.
Rabbi Warren Goldstein, who has been the Chief Rabbi of the Union of Orthodox Synagogues of South Africa since 2005, wrote in “A Word of Torah: What is the Real Meaning of Integrity?” that “This value of integrity encapsulated in the phrase ‘say little and do much’ is connected to a network of values so essential to human greatness. One such value is the sanctity of speech and fulfilling verbal commitments.”
As I mentioned supra, additional examples of the importance of “integrity” can also be found in the Talmud. The Talmud describes the human being as the “medaber” – the “speaker.” Speech is sacred, and by extension, so are the promises we make to others.
As the great Talmudic sage, Shammai states in Pirkei Avot Chapter 1: Verse15: “Say little and do much.” According to the Talmud, saying little and doing much is in fact the defining quality of a truly righteous person – and that someone who promises much and doesn’t deliver on those promises is the very opposite of a righteous person. To illustrate this idea, the Talmud cites the example of a group of travelers who pass by Abraham’s tent in the heat of the day. (The travelers later turn out to be Angels, although Abraham did not know that when he first encountered them). Abraham runs out to meet them, promising them bread and water, but instead, he actually lays out a lavish banquet for them, or as it is said in the Talmud, “a royal banquet fit for the table of King Solomon himself!”
In fact, according to the Talmud, one of the first questions a person is asked before the heavenly court after leaving this world is, “Did you deal faithfully and honestly with others?”
Not only does God require that WE live and act with integrity, God sets the example for us. There are numerous examples in the Torah and the Talmud of God being his word and exhibiting the quality of “integrity” through his promises to the Jewish People. Here are just a few examples:
In Genesis 12:1-3, God tells Abram, “Go forth from your land, your relatives, and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you. In return, God promises three things to Abram: 1) I will make of you a great nation and I will bless you; 2) I will make your name great, so that you will be a blessing, and 3) I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you. All the families of the earth will find blessing in you.” As we know, God kept his promise and Sara at 100-years-old gave birth to Isaac. In fact, God fulfilled on all three of his above promises to Abraham with integrity.
A further example of God showing integrity in his relationship with the Jewish people can be found in Deuteronomy Chapter 29: Verses 9–13. In these verses Moses, after leading the Israelites through the desert for forty years, promises the Israelites that if they (and their future generations) keep God’s Covenant as God had sworn to our forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, they will be blessed and will prosper. By giving the Torah to the Jewish People on Mt. Sinai, God fulfills on his promise.
One of the most powerful examples of God keeping his word to the Jewish people, is found in Deuteronomy, Chapter 30. In this Chapter, the Jews transition from being semetic wanderers in the desert, to being Klal Yisroel, a Nation. In keeping with his Covenant, God gives the Jewish people a permanent homeland – Palestine, which was subsequently re-named Israel, after Abraham’s grandson, Jacob. Jacob’s name, you may recall was changed to “Israel” after he wrestled all night with the Angel in Genesis.
It should be clear by now from the foregoing discussion and examples of “integrity,” that there are certain basic traits that are usually associated with persons of integrity. A person of integrity is authentic, genuine and real regardless of the situation. A person of integrity is also gracious, honest, trustworthy and responsible. He or she is patient, helpful, punctual and has a good work ethic.
At this point some of you may be thinking, “Possessing all of these qualities are a pretty tall order for any one human being to be able to achieve!” Instead, I suggest picturing it as a continuum: “Integrity” is at one end of the spectrum of what we as human beings should aspire to in our lives, and “lashon hara” or “evil tongue” falls at the other end of the spectrum. In more relatable terms, “lashon hara” could also be defined as derogatory speech about a person, which emotionally or financially damages them or can damage their reputation or esteem in other people’s eyes.
There is an old Chassid teaching that clearly demonstrates the damage “lashon hara” can wreak on another person’s reputation: As the teaching goes, God told a man who was notorious for speaking “lashon hora” against others to go around his village and lay a feathers at the door of each person he had spoken ill of. After that task was completed, God then told the man, “Now, go back around and pick up all the feathers you placed before the doors! The Chassid who had committed “lashon hora” was unable to retrieve all the feathers! The moral of this story is obviously that we cannot take back our words once they are out of our mouths…” “Lashon hora” is like murdering the other person’s reputation!
Now, I’d like YOU, the reader, to participate in a short exercise. It is actually a gift I am giving to you:
Please take out a piece of paper, as I believe it would be more meaningful, if you jot down a few notes, which are only for you to see.
I want you to think about a personal situation in your life in which you did not act with integrity. You can choose a situation that may have occurred very recently or one from your past. It should be fairly easy to identify such a situation, because most likely it still brings up a good amount of regret or other strong emotion for you, no matter how hard you have tried to bury it.
Considering that situation, what do you see that you could have done that you didn’t do, or asked another way, what would you have done differently if you had an opportunity for a “do over”?
If the person is still alive, what steps could and WILL you now take to clear up your integrity?
Is it too late to correct this “out-of-integrity? In other words, does the out-of-integrity involve someone who is no longer living? Even in that situation, you can do the exercise as if that person is still alive. The exercise will still have a profound effect on you!
You may not be present to the cost or toll of carrying this “out-of-integrity” around with you. You may wish to let sleeping dogs lie and avoid addressing the situation, but consider if you do address it, how freed up you will feel from no longer having to carry around this heavy burden. If it came up for you when I first asked you to think about a situation, it is definitely claiming valuable real estate in your head and your energy field.
© 2022, Marsha T. Shulman