Chayei Sarah | What is true integrity?
Updated: Mar 9
The Talmud tells us that “saying little and doing much” is the hallmark of righteousness, while “saying much and doing little” is a sign of someone who lacks all virtue. A person of integrity will never say anything that isn’t true, and will also not commit to something that they may not be able to deliver on. On the other hand, those for whom integrity is not an important consideration will promise a lot, even if they are unable to deliver. Having integrity means living in accordance with our beliefs, carrying out the things we talk about, being the same person in public as we are in private. There is no disconnect. Say little and do much. A simple ethic. An unfailing formula for human greatness.
What is true integrity?
The very first Jewish real estate deal takes place at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah. The transaction takes place after negotiations between Abraham and Ephron. Abraham is looking for a burial site for his beloved wife of many decades, Sarah. He decides that he wants to purchase the Cave of Machpelah in the vicinity of Chevron.
Ephron, the owner of the plot of land, initially seems to indicate that he would give it to Abraham as a gift: “I have given you the field, and as for the cave that is in it, I have given it to you; in the view of the children of my people have I given it to you, to bury your dead.” (Genesis 23:11) He then proceeds to extract an outrageously inflated price from Abraham – 400 silver shekels.
The Talmud (Bava Metziya 87a) states that Ephron epitomises the quality of those who “say a lot and do little” – who make promises they do not keep. The Talmud contrasts this with the example set by Abraham in last week’s parsha. When a group of travellers (who later reveal themselves to be angels) pass by Abraham’s tent in the heat of the day, he runs out to meet them, promising them only 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 Gemara, a royal banquet fit for the table of King Solomon himself.
Abraham thereby exemplifies the opposite quality, that of the righteous who under-promise and over-deliver – or as Shammai, the great Talmudic sage, puts it: those who “say little and do much”. (Pirkei Avot 1:15)
Interestingly, the Talmud goes on to say that “saying little and doing much” is the hallmark of righteousness, while “saying much and doing little” is a sign of someone who lacks all virtue. Rabbeinu Yona cites from Rav Sadia Gaon that G-d Himself lives by our mishna’s teaching – “say little and do much”. The example he brings is G-d’s promise to redeem the Jewish people from Egypt. G-d tells Abraham that his descendants would be enslaved in Egypt for four hundred years, after which He would liberate them. But how does G-d describe the liberation of the Jewish people from Egypt? Just two words: dan anochi – “I will judge [the Egyptian oppressors]” – these two simple words stand in contrast with what actually took place – the ten plagues, the splitting of the sea, the signs and wonders. Hashem over-delivered on that two-word promise to the greatest extent imaginable, thus setting an example for all time of what it means to say a little and do a lot.
Rav Sadia Gaon takes this idea one step further. He calls our attention to all of G-d’s promises regarding the final redemption. There are pages and pages – even entire chapters – of promises relayed by Hashem through the mouths of our great prophets concerning the ultimate redemption that will come to the world. Rav Sadia Gaon concludes: if there were only two words signifying the awe-inspiring redemption from Egypt, then the wonders accompanying the final redemption – described at great length – will be truly momentous.
The mishna teaches us the importance of “saying little and doing a lot” – the definitive trait of the righteous. But why is it such an essential value? The answer is that it relates closely to the attribute of integrity. A truly great person will never say anything that isn’t true, and will also not commit to something that they may not be able to deliver on. This is why the righteous person is always under-promising. They say “little”, and would rather deliver more than they promise, than promise more than they do. They recognise that under-delivering on their word is a breach of integrity. On the other hand, those for whom integrity is not an important consideration will promise a lot, even if they are unable to deliver.
“Saying little and doing a lot” relates to integrity in another sense. The righteous are concerned with doing good in the world, not talking about it. They aren’t interested in publicising what they do. They don’t need people talking about them and giving them honour and recognition. Their focus is on getting things done; helping people, doing mitzvot, doing good deeds for their own sake.
But a person who lacks virtue is actually interested in the opposite – in what people will say about them, and the honour and recognition that they will receive. And, therefore, they talk a lot about what they do – in fact, they talk more than they do. They say much and do little. It’s noteworthy that when Ephron makes his promises, he makes sure everyone knows about it: “And Ephron the Hittite responded to Abraham in the ears of the children of Heth for all who came to the gate of his city.” (Genesis 23:10)
We see that integrity is a cornerstone Jewish value. But what is it, in its essence? The Talmud defines a person of integrity as someone whose “inside is like their outside”. Having integrity means being the person you portray yourself to be, ensuring what you do is a reflection of who you are. It is a value that cannot be compartmentalised.
You see that in the word itself. Integrity is related to the word “integrated”. A person with integrity is someone whose inner life is in harmony with how they act. Having integrity means living in accordance with our beliefs, carrying out the things we talk about, being the same person in private that we are in public. There is no disconnect.
We can now apply this essential understanding of integrity to probe the mishna in its entirety. The full mishna reads: “Make your Torah learning fixed, say little and do a lot, and receive every person with a friendly face.” As we shall see, the value of integrity is the thread that pulls these three seemingly unrelated statements together.
Let’s look at the first statement: “Make your Torah learning fixed.” If we regard Torah learning as important, integrity demands that we allocate time for it. Indeed, the way we allocate our time is a telling indicator of our values. If, for example, we say family is important and we mean it, then we have to allocate time for it. The same goes for Torah learning – setting aside fixed times for Torah learning means having the integrity to keep to those times no matter how busy the day gets.
The second statement is: “Say little and do a lot” – we have already discussed the connection to integrity. It’s about keeping our promises. Upholding our commitments to others, as well as the commitments and promises we make to ourselves.
The third statement is: “And receive every person [kol adam] with a friendly face.” The crucial phrase here is “every person”. Not just your friends and loved ones, or the people whose favour you are trying to win. Not just the people you find it easy to like. Kol adam. Every person, no matter who they are, where they come from, what their social status is, is created “in G-d’s Image”. As another mishna in Pirkei Avot says: “Beloved is the human being created in G-d’s Image.” (3:18) If we recognise that G-dly essence within each person, then having integrity means engaging with them accordingly.
How do we cultivate integrity? Integrity can emerge in a deep way from the sense that we stand before G-d at all times, from accessing a mindstate that the sages call “Awe of Heaven”, and what the Ramo, Rav Moshe Isseles, in the beginning of Shulchan Aruch describes as the absolute foundation of living a holy life, in the verse: “The presence of G-d is before me at all times.” Meditating on G-d’s presence in our lives helps us focus on what is truly important and valuable, and at the same time, it trains us to be the same person on the outside as we are on the inside; to live a life of integrity.
And this, ultimately, is why integrity is indicative of, inseparable from, synonymous with, righteousness. Why it is one of the core values of the house of Abraham, who embodied it, and why Ephron, who lacked integrity, represents everything we should strive not to be. Say little and do much. A simple ethic. An unfailing formula for human greatness.