I was in a store stocking up on Chanukah presents and some household items (one for them, one for me, one for them…). Standing at the register I gasped aloud at the total, thinking it was perhaps time to repeal the child labor laws and get a little help with the bills around here.

The proprietor had compassion (and no doubt wanted my return business) so he made me an offer. Why don't I just make the check out to cash and I'll save the tax? In California, at 8.25%, that can be significant money.

"Great," I said and began to write the check.

Then I remembered the class I had taught that week -- the ins and outs of stealing; the small things we do and rationalize to ourselves: the restaurant won't miss it, in fact they expect us to take it; the hotel is overpriced anyway - what's one extra towel?; the limits on bringing goods across the border are meant to catch drug smugglers and big-item re-sellers, not me! (Then why is the limit so low?)

How was this any different? Wasn't I trying to steal from the government? True, I'm not the high-end manufacturer or retailer, nor was there much money at stake, but was that the point?

With some embarrassment and chagrin (on both our sides), I said I'd write the check for the full amount.

It's so easy to bring home (just a few) pens and pads from the office, to make (only one or two) personal phone calls on our employer's dime, to surf the web and play solitaire in the middle of the workday.

We tell ourselves: "Why pay when I can get it for free?" Not: "Why pay when I could steal it?"

We've upped the ante on what's really stealing to justify our petty crimes. After all, everyone does it. Music-sharing, pirated DVD's… it's become an epidemic. We tell ourselves: "Why pay when I can get it for free?" Not: "Why pay when I could steal it?"

The temptations are everywhere: to use someone else's club membership card, season's pass, friends and family discount. We've already told ourselves it's no big deal. And we're teaching that lesson to our children.

According to a report by the Josephson Institute of Ethics released in 2002, students' values are rapidly deteriorating: Cheating rose from 71% in 2000 to 74% in 2002, theft increased from 35% to 38%, and those who said they would be willing to lie to get a good job jumped from 28% to 39%.

We can't discount societal and peer pressure, but we should turn the magnifying glass inward first. During the L.A. riots after the Rodney King trial in 1991, some large department stores were looted. Rioters were shown on TV grabbing boxes of diapers, bicycles, television sets and toys. And I wondered how they explained these new acquisitions to their children.

We would never do something like that, we say as we shake our heads in disgust. Yet what if we tell our children to be quiet as we go through customs, if we take them to sports events with tickets bought for clients, if we write off a family vacation as a business expense, if we overlook the ethical dilemma in our desire to be the first on the block to own the DVD of the latest movie?

Our children are smart and they're learning from us. If we want them to be scrupulously honest, we must begin by modeling that behavior.

A Rutgers Management Education Center survey bolsters the Josephson Institute finding. In the same year of the high school students they polled, 75% admitted to serious cheating. "What's important is getting ahead," said one student. "It's not how moral you were in getting there." Where did she learn that? Whose behavior did she witness?

Beyond the rationalized, even unintentional stealing, lies a deeper issue or attitude and values. When our children see us in action, what do they really see? If they followed us around all day, would we exemplify desirable behavior? What price have we been willing to pay for material success?

One of the Jewish antidotes is recognizing that it's all in the Almighty's hands. We are taught that on Rosh Hashana, the Almighty determines how much money we will earn that year. Stealing, cheating, manipulating, back-stabbing -- none of it will increase the amount.

For any type of success, business or otherwise, all we can do is make our effort. The outcome is in the Almighty's hands. Which effort do you think He is most likely to reward?

A second antidote is found in Ethics of the Fathers: "Consider three things and you will not come into the grip of sin: Know what is above you -- a watchful Eye, an attentive Ear, and all your deeds are recorded in a Book" (2:1). When we steal, we believe we won't be caught. We wouldn't do it if we thought there was any risk of serious consequences, any real danger to ourselves. But we think no one will notice; No one is watching. We're so relieved -- and so sure -- we got away with it.

But did we? Sometimes it's frustrating to realize that we can't get away with it, that we're under constant scrutiny. Sometimes it's frustrating to remember that we're always on video (and you were worried about the cameras in the stores!). But it's actually a gift. To slightly force our hand. To help us do what's right. It's a gift that we get as a kindness from the Almighty. And that's a real bargain.