Do You Do the Right Thing When Nobody’s Watching?

It’s a fact of human nature that each of us has a public face and a private face. It’s normal to filter what we do and what we say in public places, in the presence of people that we know only casually or don’t know at all. We are inclined to share our most personal thoughts and “let our hair down” only around people who know us well and for whom we do not feel we need to make a good impression.

It’s also a fact of human nature that we are more inclined to be our best selves when our good behavior is noticed by others and reinforced by praise and appreciation. That does not mean that we do good things only when we get credit for them. But we are certainly more inclined to do the right thing when others are aware of our actions, or when others would be aware that we chose not to do the right thing in any given situation.

Despite human nature, we ought to strive to what is good and right even when no one is watching what we do. This idea can be found within this week’s parasha, Terumah, in which we encounter the commandment to build the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary used by the young Israelite nation as they trekked through the Sinai on their to the Land of Israel. The passages of Torah we will read this week describe the components of the Mishkan itself, as well as its furnishings, including the ark containing the tablets with the Ten Commandments.

And they will make an ark of acacia wood…and you shall overlay it with pure gold, inside and outside shall you overlay it, and shall make upon it a rim of gold around it.

(Exodus 25:10-11)

The ark that was to be built and kept in the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctum of the Mishkan, was a simple box, overlaid and decorated with gold. Atop its lid were the two “keruvim,” creatures facing each other with wings pointing upward. It was surely an impressive and artistic piece. Interesting, though, is that the instructions include overlaying the box with gold on the inside as well as the outside. That’s strange, considering that the ark was kept out of sight and was never supposed to be opened. Why cover the inside with gold?

The Talmudic sages tells us that the ark was covered both inside and outside with gold to teach us that we must strive to make our inner being match the person that we present outwardly. Displays of piety and righteousness must be matched by an inner conviction that we are doing the right thing. That’s not always easy to achieve, since our motive to do the right thing is sometimes the positive reinforcement and affirmation we receive from others who see and appreciate our actions.   But being a good person means that we must try to do the right thing because we believe it is right, even if we aren’t seen doing it and don’t get public credit for our good behavior.

When I pray each day, I dwell for a few moments on this passage in the Siddur, a line that is said each and every day of the year:

“L’olam y’hey adam y’ray shamayim ba-seiter u-va-galui u-modeh al ha-emet v’dover emet bi-l’vavo… A person should always strive toward righteousness both in public and in private, and speak the truth both outwardly and inwardly.”

Our commitment to a life of goodness can be measured not only by our reputation for doing the right thing but also by what we do and think when no one is watching us. It’s sometimes hard to do, but a lot of things worthwhile are just that.

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