The Reading Lesson

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02 Mar 2006

My father always used to say to us that the story of George Washington and the cherry tree is not a good one for Jewish children to hear. He cut down a cherry tree and then he said ‘Father, I cannot tell a lie. It was I.’

The result was that his father was so impressed that he told the truth that he didn’t punish him.

‘A Jew tells the truth, even though the consequences may be unpleasant.’ is the point my father makes. ‘Now the story teaches children that if they tell the truth there will be no unpleasant consequences, only reward. Real life soon teaches them quite a different lesson. So what do they conclude? Well, naturally, that it is only worth telling the truth if the consequences will be good. That is an absurdity.’

Someone was visiting us and he heard these words and he said that he would tell us a different story about the consequences of one’s actions.

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Once, long ago, my grandfather lived on a farm. Every holiday I would go to my grandparents. It was a marvelous place to visit. The boundaries of the farm stretched further than the eye can see. There were horses to ride. I watched as the corn was gathered. I watched as the cows were milked .

At the end of the day hurricane lamps would be lit and then, after the meal my grandfather would bring out some books and teach me the ‘aleph, beis’

One holiday, when I was about five, he decided that I now knew enough to read a ‘pasuk’ (verse) from Tanach. He brought out the heavy book, one of many that he had taken from the yeshiva when they had fled a pogrom, and showed me the ‘pasuk’, and told me to practise it. He said that he would test me the next day. If I could do everything correctly then he would give me a sixpence.

In those days that was a lot of money for a child, an unbelievable amount of money. I could read English fluently by that time, so as I was learning I wrote out the Hebrew words in a phonetic transliteration on an exercise book. By the end of the day I was still stumbling over some words. Then I had an idea. My grandfather’s eyesight was not good. In the flickering flame of the hurricane light he sometimes had difficulty seeing the print. I wrote in pencil, in a very soft fine line, above the Hebrew letters, the English transliteration. I thought to myself that it was just enough for me to see, but not enough to be visible to my grandfather.

The dishes were cleared away after the meal that evening. My grandfather brought out the ‘Tanach’ and opened it. I sat beside him and read confidently, every word correct. My grandfather reached into his pocket and handed me a shiny silver sixpenny piece. I felt tremendously pleased with myself. Then he said ‘Now get a rubber and help me rub out these pencil marks.’

Suddenly I realized that I hadn’t fooled him for a moment. The dishonesty of my action hit at me. I felt a tremendous shame rise up inside my very being. The money was still in my hand. I went to him to hand the money back. He wouldn’t accept it.

‘I said I would give you that money if you read correctly. You did. So keep the money. It didn’t occur to me to say to a child from my family that cheating wasn’t allowed. It didn’t occur to me that anyone from my family would do anything that was in any way not completely honest. The fault was mine. Keep the money.’

The holiday was spoilt for me. I couldn’t face my grandfather. I couldn’t throw the money away. I couldn’t take pleasure in it. My grandparents treated me as they always did, pretending not to notice my change of mood, my moping on the verandah, instead of running about the farm.

After a few days I went and took the book from the shelves, and began to practise reading. All day I sat, going over the ‘pasuk’ that I had written over, and then the next one and the next. The following day I again spent all day learning by myself, and again on the next day. By the evening I was quite confident. After the meal I pulled out the book and I read everything fluently.

My grandfather said to me, ‘So. You have learned to read. That is good.’

I said, ‘No, I have learned something else. I have learned that it is wrong to cheat. I have learned, that even if you get away with it, dishonesty is bad. It leaves a bad feeling deep inside that won’t go away.’

My grandfather took me on his knee and he said to me, ‘Now I am truly proud of you. Remember always the lesson you learned here. In life it is sometimes tempting to do wrong. Quite often no-one will know and it can bring some advantage. It is never worth it. Not only does Hashem see everything, but your heart sees everything. Life is a series of paths. If you do something bad, even if it is only something small, then you change your direction, you set off on a different path. You know when we walk to the fields there are many different paths. If we step off one path onto another, just at the edge of the field, it is only one small step, but we go in a quite different direction, to another part of the farm. In life, one small step can lead you in a direction that is very far from leading a good and true life.’

The holiday ended in a spirit of harmony, but somehow there was a dark mark on my memory. The following holiday was Pesach and I read the four questions fluently. The incident with the pencil was never mentioned again.

I don’t remember what I did with that money. The hurt look on my grandfather’s face as he refused to accept its return is something that is fresh and clear to me and remains with me always. I am a businessman. Sometimes temptations appear before me. Because of that day at the farm I am always able to resist them.

Gita Gordon writes for Jewish publication including
Hamodia, Horizons, Yated Ne’eman, Highlights (Canada) and the Jewish Tribune (U.K.). She is the author of “South African Journeys”(Jerusalem Publications) and a thriller, “Return” currently serialized in Yated Ne’eman. Gita Gordon’s latest historical novel, “Once they Were Together”, will be serialized beginning this Pesach, in “Highlights”. Reprinted with Permission.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.