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By Rabbi Jonathan Gewirtz

The Good Old Days

It has been said that if you want to terrorize a youth these days, you can put them in a room with a rotary phone, an analog watch, and a typewriter, and leave them directions written in cursive (script.) These things are old and out of style, and if you’ve never used them, you’d likely get pretty confused about how they work and getting them to produce anything beneficial.

I know that there are many things my kids can’t relate to that I used to have or do, and while we’ve made many technological advancements, in some ways we’re moved backwards. Take for example juvenile locomotion. In the old days, you rode your bicycle to get places. As you pedaled, you got a good workout and some nice exercise in the fresh air. If you didn’t have a bicycle, maybe you used a scooter, either the standard kind you moved by pushing off the ground with one foot, or perhaps the fancy kind that had a kick pedal on the back which you pumped to turn the wheel, so you didn’t need to sully your sneakers.

Nowadays, we see kids zipping back and forth on all sorts of motorized scooters and Segways, getting fresh air, perhaps, but not much exercise. Sure, many have bicycles, but they are no longer the kings of the road they used to be. What can you do? Things change.

I was reminded of this when I went to a restaurant and saw a sign which said, “We work on the honor system. Please only take one soda with each lunch special.” Whoa! The “honor system;” it’s been years since I heard that phrase. It’s almost as ancient as when you were school, being afraid that something would go on your “permanent record.” Who kept that record and what speed did you play it at? 33? 45? 72?

Of course, I’m joking. It’s not that kind of a record, though kids today wouldn’t know what to do with those either. But does anyone really believe anymore that someone is tracking their grades and behavior in school and passing it along to the next hierarchical link in the chain like some sort of secret dossier? It seems that fear of anyone really keeping track of those things is a thing of the past. And that’s a shame.

The “honor system,” was a fabulous technology which helped keep people honest and doing the right thing. It was predicated on the mechanics of human self-dignity and responsibility. One’s sense of self required him or her to do the right thing, because, after all, as a good person, they had responsibilities to others. Even if the other person wouldn’t know that they had been harmed, no self-respecting person could live with himself if he caused damage or did something shady.

Sadly, the “honor system” seems to have gone the way of the dodo bird and the 8-track tape player, and people pride themselves today on working the system, taking advantage of others, and getting away with whatever they can. If you owe someone money, you try to hold onto it as long as possible. The Chofetz Chaim, on the other hand, danced a jig when he paid a worker because he was able to fulfill the mitzvah of “B’yomo titein s’charo” (pay him on that day). 

This is not to say that everyone is like that, chas v’shalom, just that for some reason, locks and safeguards seem to have gotten stronger with the passage of time. Just leaving a cardboard box for people to place money in when they buy something may still happen, but it is not without its risks. It seems like years ago people policed themselves better and cared about their own behavior more.

Chazal say a person should find a profession that is honorable to him and gets him honor from others. What’s the first one referring to? It’s something that a person can do with his head held high, knowing it’s not beneath him. This could be something as humble as being a shoemaker or garbage collector, but if it’s honest work and he does it faithfully, he’s creating a kiddush Hashem.

I think perhaps we ought to give our youth (and ourselves) a refresher in this old technology. Let them appreciate the clarity and beauty of this high-fidelity lifestyle and recognize that anything else is a cheap imitation of an honorable life.

It’s time people again take pride in being a Tzelem Elokim who is more focused on giving than receiving and on paying his debts than collecting them. In the desert, Moshe had to appoint so many judges because people were constantly asking shailos of how to fulfill their obligation to their fellow man.

That’s music to my ears, and I hope to hear more of it as recent generations begin to grasp what a flawless technology it really was. Treating people right? That never gets old.


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