In our youth, many of us did things that, looking back as adults, we are not proud of. Perhaps we stole an inexpensive item(s) from a store, insulted someone, voiced a prejudice, or worse. We may even smile or chuckle as we reminisce; we were kids. But mature adults do not brag about it, and they do not celebrate it, if they are moral.
Last week the St. Louis Jewish Light introduced us to Trevor Kraus. He “snuck” into major sporting events 31 times, and then wrote a book about his cheating, not with regret, but with pride -- and justification, actually many justifications. He recalls how his father taught him -- describing his dad as “crafty,” and his MO as a “spin move,” a term he invokes when admitting that he still might do it again. Language is revealing.
His own words are a series of self-centered justifications and rationalizations. We can learn a lot from Kraus:
(1) “Anyone who says sneaking into games is morally wrong is basically standing up for people like [Rams owner] Stan Kroenke …” He represents himself not only as morally innocent, but apparently as a hero, the avenger of a great wrong.
(2) The sneaking into games with friends “helped distract him from a lack of success with women and his father’s declining health.” Cheating is good therapy.
And finally, (3) since the games he snuck into were sold out, “the owner has already maximized the value of that game, so if anything, when I sneak into a game, and buy a bag of peanuts and a beer, that’s pure profit for the owner.” His cheating is in fact a commercial benefit! This last comment most clearly underscores his rationalization: He otherwise lines the pockets of the very owner whom he seeks to punish. (see #1)
Worse, however, are the other adults in this story: the reporters and the editors. From the Jewish Light’s staff writer to the ESPN reporter, and the editors of the Light, there is not even a hint of moral challenge, not a printed word raising the issue of theft. In fact, his 31 acts are celebrated as clever. Even the Jewish Light headline is “Ticket or not, St Louis sports fan finds a way in,” as if he has performed a courageous rescue, and Kraus’ picture projects a man of success, with a full smile.
And, oh, by the way, he is identified early on as Jewish.
Stealing is wrong. It deprives others of what is theirs; if you want a benefit, then purchase it! You don’t cheat; you don’t steal. Stealing corrupts the individual, corrupts others who accept it as normative, and leads to further corruption. The simplest expression in Torah is found in Leviticus 19:11, “Do not steal ... “ (the “stealing” referred to in the Decalogue was Rabbinically understood to refer to kidnapping). In the parashah of the week that the article appears (ironically across from the Light’s “Mitzvah Day” page), from the last verse in Exodus 21 through the first 12 verses in Exodus 22, the Torah employs the word “g-n-v/steal,” eight times. Several of the legal texts throughout the Torah admonish against many forms of stealing -- not paying wages on time, moving landmarks, using (even possessing) untrue weights and measures, etc. Furthermore, the midrashic traditions saw opportunity in seemingly extraneous words in the Torah text to underscore avoiding stealing: Both Abraham’s shepherds, and Moses himself when he received God’s call, would not allow their animals to graze on the land of another.
Coincidentally, the article was published during the same week that the University of Missouri was punished (too severely, in my opinion) by the NCAA because a tutor took tests for 12 athletes. The story appears in the same period as the Baseball Writers Association debates whether cheaters deserve to be in the Hall of Fame.
I am reminded by the all-too-common act of parents lying about their children’s ages to get them into movie theaters at a slightly discounted price. For a few dollars (or cents in an earlier age), cheating became a family way, and so did lying, for it was often enough done in their children’s presence. For a few dollars, and the thrill, and the justifications, it is celebrated in the press.
And then there is that Jewish angle. Undoubtedly, people will share this article, perhaps with friends no less morally indifferent than the Jewish Light was when it published it, without raising the issue of immorality. What will others conclude? Jews and non-Jews may infer that it is innocent, ok, acceptable, as explained by Kraus, for who reminded them otherwise?, and non-Jews may also wonder whether the Jewish people, celebrated and represented in the St Louis Jewish newspaper, support cheating. What stereotypes will it reinforce? Yes, in the scheme of things, Kraus’ acts may be small, but as our Sages teach, “One mitzvah leads to another; one sin leads to another.” Many large moral devolutions begin with small ones. What damage may result?
We commit moral sins as youths and as adults. Torah recognizes it, but does not leave us condemned. There is teshuvah; redemption is possible. The first step is to recognize the wrong, the second to show remorse, the third to sincerely pledge not to do it again. Kraus should stop rationalizing, excusing, and justifying; his is a corrupting message for himself and for others. And because the Jewish Light represents the Jewish community, and because this article may lead others to rationalize, excuse, justify, and even celebrate cheating, the Jewish Light, too, owes the Jewish community a sincere apology, with a pledge not to do it again. That would be an article worthy of broad circulation, worthy of the Jewish people and its noble heritage. “One mitzvah leads to another.”