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What Is the Real Meaning of Integrity?

Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1-25:18 )

by Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein

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Integrity is a word we hear about often. We know it's one of the highest compliments you can pay a person. And we all want to be regarded as people of integrity. When we picture someone with integrity, we think of a person who is upright, honest and honourable. But, what does it actually mean?

It's an important question to answer because, according to the Talmud, one of the first questions a person is asked when appearing before the heavenly court after leaving this world is: "Did you deal faithfully and honestly with others?" (Talmud Shabbos 31a) Clearly, integrity is one of the most basic and important values we are expected to live by. But what is it?

It's obviously a multifaceted concept, but one essential expression of integrity relates to fulfilling the promises and commitments that we make. As Shammai, the great Talmudic sage, puts it: "Say little and do much." (Pirkei Avot 1:15) The Talmud (Bava Metzia 87a) states that 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 Abraham from last week's parsha. When a group of travellers (who later turn out to be angels, although Abraham didn't know that when he first encountered them) pass by Abraham's tent in the heat of the day, he runs out to meet them, promising them bread and water. In the end, though, he goes to extraordinary lengths to lavish them with a huge meal and the finest delicacies - in the words of the Talmud, a royal banquet fit for the table of King Solomon himself. Clearly, Abraham exemplifies our Mishna's teaching: "Say little and do much."

The Talmud also cites a counter-example from this week's parsha, Chayei Sarah. Abraham wishes to purchase the Cave of Machpelah as a burial site for his wife Sarah (which would also become the burial site for the forefathers and foremothers of the Jewish people). Ephron, the owner of the plot of land, initially seems to tell Abraham, very publicly, that he would give it to him as a gift. But he then proceeds, later privately, to extract from Abraham an outrageously inflated price, even playing it down in the process. Ephron promised much and delivered little.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, one of the great halachic deciders of the 20th century, identifies another potent example of what true integrity is all about, in this week's parsha. Abraham sends Eliezer, his trusted servant, to Charan to help find a wife for Isaac - to find someone who exhibits the quality of chessed (loving-kindness), and who embodies the values of the house of Abraham, and would continue the legacy of building the Jewish people. He encounters Rivka drawing water at the well - who, through the seemingly simple act of providing water for Eliezer and his camels to drink, displayed the very traits that would make her a fitting wife for Isaac and one of the great mothers of the Jewish people.

According to Rav Moshe Feinstein, what impressed Eliezer was that she was careful with her promises. Integrity demands being careful not to make promises that you will not be able to keep, and so only after Rivka had already delivered on her first promise to give Eliezer water, did she then offer to give water to the camels. Rivka demonstrated the trait of integrity - so fundamental to Abraham and Isaac, and to the Jewish people as a whole.

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.

In the context of making and keeping vows, the Torah says: "He shall not desecrate his word." (Numbers 30:3) The word "desecrate" implies that speech is holy, and that, therefore, one should honour verbal commitments. Reinforcing this idea of the holiness of speech, Onkelos translates the verse: "...and Adam became a living soul" as: "Adam became a speaking being." It is the power of speech that distinguishes the human being from the rest of creation that defines the human being.

In fact, 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.

But, making promises isn't just about upholding our commitments to others, it's also about being true to ourselves - what we might call personal integrity. And this is something separate to the sacredness of speech, because it includes keeping promises we make to ourselves, promises we make "in our hearts". The Talmud (Bava Basra 88a) describes the great Talmudic sage, Rav Safra, as the epitome of "one who speaks truth in his heart". (Psalms 15:2) On this, Rav Avraham Yitzchak Bloch says faithfully fulfilling what we undertake to do in our hearts is also an important part of personal integrity.

There's another aspect of "say little and do much" that characterises good virtue and integrity. Virtuous people are interested in acting rather than talking about it. They aren't interested in publicising what they do. They don't need affirmation, or honour and recognition, from others. Their focus is on getting things done: helping others, performing mitzvot, doing good deeds for their own sake. But those who are not virtuous are actually interested in the opposite - in what people will say about them, and the honour and recognition they will receive, rather than actually doing good. These are people who will say a lot and do comparatively little.

The prophet Micha speaks about "walking modestly with your God", (Micha 6:8) which the Talmud interprets as doing good without seeking the publicity and acclaim that comes with doing so (Succah 49b). Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz writes that the good deeds performed publicly provide ulterior benefits, such as honour and recognition. Therefore, great effort Subscribe to the podcast or download next week's episode at is required to purify one's motives by doing these deeds as modestly as possible. (Sichot Mussar 31:46) In other words, we need to purify our inner thoughts and emotions even when performing good deeds.

This focus on inner truth and sincerity rather than externalities is at the core of integrity. We need to ensure our internal state of mind and our external lives are aligned. What we do should be a reflection of who we are. As the Talmud says: "A Torah scholar whose inside is not like his outside is not a true Torah scholar." (Yuma 72b)

Rabbeinu Bechaya, in his book: Duties of the Heart, writes:

"Regarding one's inside who's not like his outside, scripture says his heart was not whole with Hashem, his God." (Kings 1,11:4) As is well-known, if someone contradicts themselves or proves themselves a liar, whether in speech or in deed, people no longer believe in their integrity and have no confidence in their sincerity. Similarly, if our outer and inner selves are in contradiction, if our talk is not matched by our intentions, if the actions of our limbs are at odds with the convictions of our heart, then our worship of God is imperfect."

And so integrity is about how we interact with others, and it's also how we relate to ourselves. It is a value which cannot be compartmentalised. You see that in the word itself. Integrity is related to the word, "integrated". A person with integrity is a person whose inner life is in harmony with how s/he acts. There is no disconnect.

And this, ultimately, is why integrity is one of the core values of the house of Abraham, and therefore a vital part of our legacy as the Jewish people. Abraham is someone who embodied truth and sincerity, kindness and concern; someone who sprang to the aid of others, moved by a deep inner well of goodwill towards all people and a deep inner devotion to the will of his Creator.

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