In this week's Torah portion we learn that the holy ark which held within it the tablets of the Ten Commandments was covered with pure gold -- not only on its outside, which could be seen, but on its inside as well. Our sages teach us that we can learn from here that we, too, should strive to keep our 'insides' -- our personal behavior -- consistent with our 'outsides' -- the ideals we talk about and express to others.
In our story a couple of kids learn a lesson from an old coin about insides and outsides.
"…So for all of the reasons I have stated, we have an obligation to help those less fortunate than ourselves, and by doing so make the world a better place. Thank you."
"Fantastic!" clapped Robert. "If I were your teacher, I would definitely give you an A plus."
Janet smiled. She had been working hard all week preparing her speech for social studies class and now with it due the next day, she tried it out by practicing it on her brother. "Well, thanks for listening. I'm really happy you liked it. I only hope Mrs. Kaplan will be just as impressed tomorrow," Janet said as she wrapped a rubber band around her index cards and got ready go out and catch the last few rays of the sunny winter afternoon.
"Hey, just a second Jan. Now that I helped you out with your project, maybe you can also help me out with mine."
"No problem, Rob. What is your speech about?"
"I'm not giving any speech," Rob said as he walked over to his desk drawer and pulled out a big red coffee can with some words taped onto it. "Our class is doing a different kind of a project. We're all collecting money for local charities. I'm collecting for the Jewish orphanage in town, and..."
"Oh, wow. What a nice thing to do," Janet remarked. "So you want me to listen to the pitch you're going to give people and tell you what I think, right?"
Robert shuffled on his feet. "Well, yes and no. I was a little scared to ask you, but after hearing your speech about helping the unfortunate, I'm sure you wouldn't mind helping the cause by donating some money yourself." Rob opened up the top of the can waiting for Janet's response.
Janet scrunched up her face and said, "Gee, Rob, like I said -- it really is a great thing to do, but um, you know right now I really don't have any money to spare."
"But it's for a really good cause," her brother persisted. "And didn't you just spend the last ten minutes talking about how important charity is?"
"Well, um, that's true," Janet said uncomfortably. "It is really important -- in theory. But right now, you know I'm really saving all my money for a new cartridge for my Gameboy, plus I need to save up to buy some new sweaters…"
Rob didn't really buy it, but he saw he wasn't going to get anywhere. "Okay, Jan, don't sweat it. Maybe at least you can help me count the money I've collected until now so I can write it down?"
Janet breathed a sigh of relief. "Sure Rob, no problem."
The kids poured out the coins and bills out onto the table and began to count. "Hey Rob, look at this!" Janet said excitedly, holding up a scratched up coin.
"Yeah it's a quarter, so what?"
"No, it's not just any quarter. This is a real silver quarter like they used to make."
"Nowadays our quarters are silvery only on the outside; inside they're just some cheap copper and other stuff, see?" she said, holding another quarter sideways. "But these old quarters are solid silver inside and out, so they're worth much more."
Robert shrugged. Then an idea hit him and he smiled. "So, Janet," he said "you're telling me that this coin is more valuable because it's real on the inside, and not just on the surface where everybody sees?"
"So shouldn't we be the same way?"
"I mean while it's nice to talk about doing a good deed on the outside, 'in theory', isn't it worth much more when we actually do it, on the inside as well?"
He smiled as he picked up his collection can and gave it a shake. Janet blushed as she got the point -- giving speeches about charity and then refusing to give it was like being one of those 'fake' kind of quarters - silver only on the outside. "Okay, you've got me," she said as she dug into her pouch and pulled out a dollar bill. "I guess waiting another day or so for my Gameboy is better than being phony and playing games with myself."
Q. How did Janet feel when Rob first asked her to give money for charity after she made her speech?
A. She felt like it was ok to talk about the right way to act without really having to act that way.
Q. How did she feel in the end?
A. She saw how not doing what we know is right is being like a coin that is only good on the outside.
Q. What did Janet learn from her talk with Rob?
A. She knew already that helping the less fortunate was a good thing to do. She had even prepared a class speech on the topic. But she hadn't made the connection that speaking about it wasn't enough, and we had to actually do it. Rob pointed out that just like a coin of solid silver is worth more, so to is a good value we actually put into practice.
Q. Why is it hard sometimes for people to live up to their values?
A. We each have two parts to ourselves; the part that wants to do what is right, and the part that wants to do what feels good -- right or not. As long as we only talk about values, the feel good part doesn't get in our way. But once we start to put our values into action, the feel good part of ourselves tries to do whatever he can to stop us. But if we keep going anyway we'll see it's only a bluff, because in the end we always see that nothing feels as good as doing the right thing.
Ages 10 and Up
Q. Is there any value in talking about ideal values and behavior if we aren't living by them?
A. It depends on our motivation. If we don't even strive to one day be able to live by the values we describe, then the talk by itself has little value. If, however, we do want to get to there, but just don't feel able to do it yet, then talking about them can be a powerful tool to help us move in the right direction.
Q. Can a person be an ethicist without being ethical?
A. In the Torah way of life -- no. Ethics is not just a topic of study, like mathematics or music, but something to be lived. Values are not just another branch of philosophy, but the life-blood of a sensitive, growing human being. To a Jew, words are only meaningful when they are backed up with deeds.