My Bubie says that as soon as we are big enough to talk and to understand we are told what is acceptable and what is not. These are rules. Sometimes they are written down and sometimes we are just told them, orally. Each group and every society have a set of rules that the people are expected to follow. Usually, if you don’t follow the rules you get punished. That is why most people follow the rules. Some people follow the rules because they understand that it is good for them and for others.
I asked my Bubie if there was ever a time when a person shouldn’t follow the rules and how would they know if it was that time or not? My Bubie told me that was a good question but not an easy one to answer and then she told me the following story.
Miri was now an old woman but she remembers when she was a child and how much fun she had playing with her friends and coming home to the warmth of her Mother’s kitchen where the air smelled like a place where there were hundreds of ovens cooking and baking the most delicious foods you had ever tasted in your whole life. There was one small oven in their tiny home but it filled up the entire house with its scrumptious aromas .
One day, Miri remembers coming home and finding her sister Eli crying. “What’s the matter?” asked Miri. “Why are you crying?”
“The principal at school told me that I cannot stay in the school anymore”, she said in between her sobs.
“What are you talking about?”, asked Miri. “Calm down and tell me what happened.”
Eli took a few deep breaths and began to tell Miri her story. “The other day”, she said, starting off quietly and slowly, “I was in the store buying flour for Mama to make bread. One of the girls came up to me and asked me if I liked school. She started to complain about the homework and the teacher who sometimes got angry with her. I was trying to be her friend and so I said, 'I know what you mean. There is a lot of homework and I also don’t like when the teacher gets angry'."
Eli paused and then she continued with her story. “When I went to school that afternoon the principal called me into his office and said to me, 'You know Eli, we have a rule in this school that you are not allowed to say bad things about the school.' I told him that I didn’t know about that rule but it didn’t matter because I like school and I would never say anything bad about it."
“Well,”, he said. “Someone in the store heard you complaining about our school and as far as I am concerned, you broke the rule and you must leave our school.”
“But that is ridiculous,” said Miri. “Did you explain to him what happened and the situation you were in?” "Well, I tried to but I also didn’t want to get my friend in trouble, who was the one who really said something bad about the school!” said Eli, starting to cry again.
“We must tell Mama and Tata (Father)”, said Miri. “They will understand and be willing to help.” Mama tried to call the principal and Tate tried to meet with him, but the principal had insisted that Eli had broken a very important rule and the only way he would consider letting her back in is if she told him the name of the girl who was complaining to her about the school.
“Maybe you should tell him”, Miri said. “After all, why should you not be able to go to school because someone else broke the rules?”
“But Miri, maybe there are some rules that are not good rules and we must break them," said Eli.
Miri thought about what Eli said and then she answered her. “Eli, maybe there are rules that are not good, but if you break them you can get punished and getting punished is never good!”
“Well,” said Eli. “I would say that getting punished is never fun, but sometimes you have to take a punishment that is less painful. For example, if I told the principal the name of my friend who really was the one who said something bad about the school, maybe he wouldn’t expel me from the school but then he would expel her. How would I feel about that? She was just telling me her feelings. It is a bad rule anyway Miri!”
“It may be a bad rule Eli, but it is a rule and why should you have to be punished for something that you didn’t do in the first place, save yourself in this situation. If your friend doesn’t like the school, she should leave and find a better school for herself. That’s what I think,” said Miri. “I don’t like coming home to a sister who is crying and being punished for something which she didn’t even do!”
Eli thought about what Miri had said. Now she was confused, but deep in her heart she couldn’t see telling on her friend. She needed to go and speak to someone else. Someone who had more experience than she did. So, Eli decided to go and speak to the old lady who lived in their neighborhood. She had no family but everyone called her “Baabie” because she was always kind to the children. She would give them cookies and little books to read and sometimes tell them stories when they came over to visit her. She seemed to know a lot about the world and about people and sometimes even the adults went to her for advice.
Eli grabbed her sweater and off she went to Baabie’s house. Once there, Baabie welcomed her, gave her a nice cup of hot cocoa and offered her a comfortable chair by the fire. “What is happening with you?”, Baabie asked Eli. “I haven’t seen you for such a long time!”
Before Baabie finished asking Eli how she was, Eli burst into tears and told her the whole story about her friend, what was said in the grocery store and the reaction of the principal.
“Now, now”, said Baabie. “Calm down. Let’s think about what is happening here and what our choices are. You know in life, there are always choices. We just need to think about what they are and which one is best for us.”
Baabie continued, “let me tell you a little story when I was a girl in Russia, in the Shtetle (Jewish village). The Russians had a law, which is a rule that a country makes, which said that all young men of a certain age must join the Russian army. The Jews in our Shtetle did not want our Jewish boys going into the Russian army because they would disappear forever. Either they would get killed or they would become like the Russians, abandon their Jewish practice and never want to see their families again.”
“So, what did the people in your Shtetle do Baabie?”, Eli asked. “Well, we decided that we had to hide the boys before their 16th birthday when the Russian soldiers would take them. We had many places to hide the boys.”
“Like where”?, asked Eli.
“We hid them in the cellars, with the potatoes, when the soldiers came through our village. We hid them in the barn, where we kept our horses for our wagons, and in the dairy where we kept our cows. Sometimes, people made secret hiding places in the roof of their homes and would hide the boys there, if it was too cold to keep them in the cellar or the barn. It was very scary when the Russian soldiers came riding through our villages looking for our young boys to take them away from us.”
“But Baabie, what does this have to do with my situation?”, asked Eli. “I am not hiding from the principal. He already caught me and threw me out of school.”
“Here’s the story Eli. There was one woman in our village who believed that we had to follow the law, the rules. Maybe she made some money too or maybe she just wanted to do what she was told. Apparently, she found a soldier and told him about all of the hiding places we had for our boys and the next time they came into our village, they found and took five of our young boys. You cannot imagine how much crying there was in our village on that day. Those parents, brothers and sisters, who knew that they would probably never again see their children and their siblings again, could not stop mourning for their loss.
After everyone calmed down a little, the Rabbis in the community, as well as many of the older people began to wonder, “how in the world did the soldiers know exactly where to find the hidden boys?” Then I think they began to realize that there was someone in the village who had told the soldiers where all of our hiding places were.
I am not sure, because I was a young girl at the time, exactly how they discovered which lady told the soldiers, but I do know that once they found out they called a Beit Din (a court) and they tried that lady. When it was all over we never saw her again in our village.”
“What happened to her?”, asked Eli. “What did they do with her?”
“I’m not really sure”, said Baabie. “There were many stories that the children made up about what happened to her. One thing that I know for sure, we never saw her in our village again. Now, what does this have to do with your story, you might ask? “
“Yes, what?”, asked Eli again.
“This woman, who reported to the soldiers where we were hiding all of our young boys, thought that what she was doing was the right thing to do because she was following the law, the rules that the country had made. However, there are some rules that are truly bad, or one can even call them horrible rules that not only should we not follow, but we must sometimes be punished for not following them to protect ourselves, our family, people we care about and maybe others we don’t know but who are in our community.
Even though it is a rule that we must always tell the truth, if telling the truth would really hurt someone then we might not be able to tell the truth. Can you think of an example when this could happen?”
Eli thought for a few minutes and suddenly her eyes lit up, “Yes, in my case! If I tell the principal which one of my friends complained about the school she could really get hurt. They would make her leave the school and she would have a hard time getting into another school!"
“Good example”, said Baabie. “Some rules, that can hurt people who are really good people are not good rules. Sometimes we can fight to change those rules and sometimes we just need to stay away from places that have bad rules. That isn’t always possible, so sometimes we just have to be punished for breaking a rule to protect someone else."
“When you get older, Eli,” continued Baabie. “You will meet many different people and experience many different situations. It is difficult to learn the lesson about the 'rule of the rules' when you are so young, but I believe that the younger you are when you learn these lessons, the stronger you will be as you grow up and are faced with more difficult challenges. You will find another school that will eventually accept you and when you do, you will be happier. But mostly you will be happy because you already have learned, 'the rule of the rules', and that is that not all rules are good rules and if a rule causes good people to suffer for no reason, it must be changed and even sometimes broken, in spite of the consequence of receiving a punishment.”
“Now finish your hot chocolate and if the principal does not change his mind about expelling you from the school, until you are accepted to another school, you will come here every day for private lessons. We shall discover many things together, Eli, if you are learning with me. Just keep reading, practicing your math and studying Torah and you will grow to be a very smart and caring woman."
When Eli returned home she knew exactly what she would do. She made an appointment to meet with the principal and told him that she would not tell him which girl had spoken to her in the grocery store. She, herself did not say anything bad about the school, and in her opinion, neither did her friend.
"Really", she said to the principal, "whoever said that I said something bad about the school is the one who broke the rule, the rule against gossip and speaking lies about people. I hope that you will consider what I said and let me come back to school."
The principal looked at Eli, thought for a few minutes and responded. "You know Elie, maybe you are correct. It was not right for someone to report what he had heard. I think that we both learned something today. Be careful what you say in public and be careful what others tell you they heard. Both can be hurtful. We want you to come back to school."
So, the next day, Eli returned to school. All of her friends were happy to see her and she was happy to be back to her learning. She thought to herself, "sometimes the most important lessons we learn outside of the classroom!"