My friend is an elderly gentleman who frequents a casino six times a week. He jokingly exclaims while leaving home that he is “off to work.” (Editor’s Note: This article in no way condones gambling, as gambling is often prohibited by the Torah.)

He told me about a time when there had been an uncharacteristic torrential downpour in his town, causing significant flooding. The casino got hit hard, and it lost electricity. When the lights went out and the chips were still resting on the tables, people went into a frenzy. Men and women were grabbing chips from poker and roulette tables left and right. They imagined that no one was watching, and took advantage of the opportunity to add a few more chips to their stash. Many were subsequently caught and quickly forced to return their newfound “wealth.”

Interestingly, I had a similar episode, but with a profoundly different result. The other evening, while praying Shemoneh Esrei, the Silent Prayer, the electricity in our synagogue went out, leaving us worshippers in the dark. I was distracted by the sudden darkness and looked around to see what this blackout would elicit from my fellow congregants. Everyone stayed in their place, and a majority of them continued to pray as if nothing had occurred. Since most know the prayers by heart, they were able to recite the prayers even though they could not see the text. I was amazed at the calm.

This got me thinking: How privileged am I to live in a profoundly parallel universe? When the lights went out, and people had the chance to perhaps sneak out of synagogue and continue on with their day, they chose to remain in place, focusing on their connection to G‑d. What a contrast to the gamblers!

The Eye That Sees

The Talmud relates that when Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai was on his deathbed, surrounded by his disciples, he exclaimed, “May it be G‑d’s will that the fear of heaven be upon you like the fear of a human being. ”Surprised, his disciples protested, “No more than this?!” He responded that, for better or for worse, people generally are more afraid of prying peers than G‑d’s watchful eyes. “For you know,” he told his students, “that when a person commits a sin, he says [to himself]: ‘May no one see me!’”

When we are alone, we assume that what we do is our own business. Our sages, however, tell us to “contemplate three things, and you will not come to the hands of transgression: Know what is above you: an eye that sees, an ear that hears, and all your deeds being inscribed in a book.”1

Although we are aware of the fact that we are constantly seen by G‑d, we humans tend to compartmentalize, thinking that when others don’t see us, we need not act accordingly. We need to be mindful that even when we can seemingly go unrecognized, we still ought to act in an ethical way that is in keeping with Torah values.

We live in an age of transparency when billions of people have broadcasting devices in the palms of their hands. When one untoward act is displayed and caught on camera, huge executives, megastars and politicians can instantly go into crisis mode. This is a reminder to us that there is “an eye that sees and an ear that hears,” a message that can be taken more literally than ever before.

What Would You Do?

Who are we? Do we make choices based on what we think is right, or based on what we think others want? Are we acting as we do because that is what society deems appropriate, or are we living and breathing what we truly believe?

People, when put under duress, express their true colors. In the Talmud, Rabbi Elai relates, “In three matters a person’s true character is ascertained: in his cup (i.e., his behavior when he drinks), in his pocket (i.e., his financial dealings), and in his anger.”2

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz writes in his explanation on the Tanya that as long as a life is running smoothly, a person can hold on to everything. But when things become difficult, we shed those things whose connection to us has been only peripheral. Rabbi Steinsaltz gives a fictitious example of a pious man who is informed that he is mentally unsound. Hearing this as a new “excuse” to relieve himself of Torah obligations, he hastily discards the yoke of mitzvahs and leaves the path of Torah. Apparently, his connection to G‑d was lacking all along.3

How would we act if told that we were relieved of our obligations as Jews? Would we celebrate, or would we mourn?

Who are we when the lights are dim and we feel alone? Will we steal those chips, or will we pray with even more fervor?

“We are what we consistently do,” goes the famous adage. So, the next time you’re in a situation where you are in darkness, whether physically, emotionally or spiritually, remember to let your true colors shine, expressing your passion for what you truly believe.