Living By Our Values
What do we do if we are asked to do something we know is wrong? What if we are ordered to? In this week's Torah portion, Shifra and Puah, the two Jewish midwives, are faced with this dilemma. Although their job is to help the Jewish women give birth to healthy babies, Pharaoh, the wicked Egyptian king, orders them to take part in his evil plot to kill the babies as soon as they are born. The midwives realized that Pharaoh could punish them if they didn't comply. But they also knew that what they were being asked to do was wrong, and they wouldn't compromise their values. They stood their ground and continued to help, and not hurt the mothers and babies. We learn from these brave women how to stand up for our values, even under pressure.
In our story a boy doesn't give in to someone who pressures him to do wrong.
"Just one more lap," Marc Cooper told himself as he did a perfect flip-turn in the Olympic sized swimming pool. As trainer and senior member of the Hillcrest school swim team, Marc easily outpaced the new recruits he was helping to train. Having finished his practice laps way before the other swimmers, the boy got out of the pool in order to help Kurt, the assistant coach, prepare the schedule for the upcoming meet.
He went over to Kurt and was taken aback by the strange look in his eyes. "Cooper, get over here, now!" he hissed, waving him over toward the now empty locker room.
"Come help me 'clean out' some of these lockers before the other guys get out of the pool." Marc was shocked as he realized that Kurt was planning to steal money out of the boys' wallets, and actually wanted him to help!
"I'll be on lookout as you get the stuff," he said. "We'll make some easy cash, heh heh. They'll never suspect us. And you had better do as I order, or you're in big trouble!" he added with a snarl as he noticed Marc's hesitation.
Reluctantly the boy made his way into the locker room. As he stood in front of the first locker, Marc's thoughts raced. He realized that if he didn't do as Kurt said he might get kicked off of the swim team. Not only that, who knew what an angry Kurt might decide to do to get back at him?
Marc started to open the locker door, then he pulled his hand back.
"What am I crazy?" he thought. "I never stole a thing in my life. Just because this guy is threatening me, am I going to turn into a thief? No way!"
"Hurry up, the guys are starting to come out of the pool!" barked Kurt from the corridor.
Marc knew what he had to do. The boy turned and slowly walked towards the assistant coach. "Well, how much did we get?" asked Kurt out of the side of his mouth. Marc felt scared of Kurt's reaction but also really empowered by the knowledge that he had resisted his pressure, and done what he knew was right.
Looking him right in the eye, the boy shook his head and said, "Sorry Kurt. You had better find another partner in crime. My job around here is to help these boys and not to rip them off."
Marc walked out of the pool complex, past the dumbfounded coach. He hoped it would all blow over and he would be able to stay on the team, but come what may, he was glad that he had stuck by his values and kept his hands clean and his head above water.
Q. How did Marc feel when Kurt first ordered him to help him steal money?
A. He didn't want to do it but felt like he didn't have a choice, because Kurt ordered him.
Q. How did he feel after he stood up to Kurt, and didn't steal?
A. He felt great that he hadn't done something wrong even though he was pressured to do so.
Q. What should a person do if someone in authority tells him to do something against his values?
A. It isn't comfortable to stand up to people in authority, and generally it is an important value to try to comply with what we are asked by them to do. But there may be times that what someone asks of us might be unjustifiably harmful to ourselves or others. In that case the higher value would be to refuse, on the grounds that we are obeying an even higher authority --- our deepest values of what is right and wrong. That is what Marc did when he refused to help his assistant coach steal from the boys.
Q. What can someone do if they are asked to do something that they think is wrong, but they're just not sure?
A. In such a case it is generally a good idea not to act hastily. We should give ourselves time to think it over with a clear head. Often when we're no longer under the pressure of the moment things become clear. Also it is worthwhile to consult with someone whose judgment we trust who can help us gain perspective.
Q. Have you ever been asked to do something that you know is wrong? How did you feel? What did you do?
Ages 10 and Up
Q. What is the difference between something we don't feel like doing and something we should not do?
A. There may be times that we are asked to do something that we don't want to do. We might find it inconvenient or even pointless. Whether we choose to do it or not is not necessarily based on any deep convictions that we have. However if we are asked to do something that would contradict a genuine moral principle, such as not to be dishonest, in such a case we are obligated to refuse. It is important not to get these two categories confused.
Q. Marc could have told himself that he is just following orders. Is 'just following orders' ever an acceptable excuse to do something harmful?
A. Each human being is given a capacity to understand what is right and wrong. Likewise, each of us is responsible for our own actions. It is never justified to blindly follow someone's orders and feel as if the responsibility of decision-making has been somehow removed from us. We are always responsible for our actions.
Q. Can you think of a time that someone pressured you to do something that you thought was wrong? How did you react? Would you react differently the next time?