Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
Parashat Be-har-Be-hukkotai 5762
Leviticus 25:1 - 27:34
May 4, 2002 22 Iyar 5762
Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.
Though Judaism is distinguished by a this–worldly ethic, the acquisition of material possessions is not a high priority. The singular adage of Ben Zoma from the early days of rabbinic Judaism (second century), became normative: "Who may be deemed rich? Those content with their lot" (Pirkei Avot 4:1). We need far less than we want. To take comfort in what we have is to derive pleasure in values other than wealth.
In the fourteenth century, Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher incorporated the spirit of Ben Zoma into his grand codification of Jewish law, the Tur. After beginning the day at services in the synagogue followed by a period of Torah study, we are to go off to work, "because Torah without a livelihood will eventually come undone and turn into sin. For if we have nothing to eat, poverty will soon bring us to violate God's word. Nevertheless, we ought not to make our livelihood primary but secondary. The study of Torah should be the center of our lives as it was for the early pietists, who made their livelihood secondary and the study of Torah primary and both flourished" (Orah Hayyim 156).
A model of balance, Ben Asher's formulation dismisses the notion that a life of Torah untempered by reality (and funded by others) could ever be heralded as healthy and constructive. At the same time, it resists the impulse to focus on the amassing of wealth as the be–all and end–all of life.
Long before, the Talmud had already posited that the first question we shall be asked by God when we come on high would pertain to our livelihood: "Did you conduct your business affairs in good faith?" (BT Shabbat 31a). To be sure, of the six questions that will be put to us, three deal directly with the study of Torah, reflecting again the quest for balance between what is primary and secondary. Also, the order of the questions is at least partially dictated by the words of the biblical verse that underlies this flight of rabbinic imagination. Still, I find it striking that the first question implies the importance of working for a living. The study of Torah is not meant to sever our ties to the world but rather to inform them. And yet the emphasis on integrity bespeaks an innate asceticism. The overriding goal is not to earn as much as we possibly can, but to have a clear conscience when we're finished. The social good that the "robber barons" effected with their fortunes did not offset the unscrupulous tactics they used to build them.
I offer this context to illuminate the exegesis of one verse in this week's double parashah. The vision which animates the legislation of chapter 25 is static: to preserve the original blueprint of Israelite society. Hence, the equality of all takes priority over the freedom of each. Land can never be sold outright, only leased till the jubilee year when it reverts to the original owner. The Torah stipulates: "When you sell property to your neighbor, or buy any from your neighbor, you shall not wrong one another" (25:14). Clearly, the Torah introduces a moral note into commercial transactions. The Mishnah defined "wronging another" (ona'ah from lo tonu) as charging an unfair price, that is, taking a sixth more than the going price. For a short time after the sale, the buyer could return the item and get his money back. Rabbi Tarfon wanted to fix the unfair price at a third as well as extend the time of return. But the view was rejected.
Though the Rabbis liked the idea of setting the bar higher, they did not want to increase the risk to the seller by extending the time the deal could be undone (Baba Metzia 4:3). At first restricted to movable goods and transactions involving Jews, in time, the principle of "wronging another" was expanded to cover both real estate and non–Jewish buyers.
The point of the principle is to curb our greed. We are admonished from taking advantage of a gullible consumer. A commercial transaction should not be entirely market–driven. Ethical considerations serve to protect the social fabric. In other words, Jewish law dares to rein in the profit motive because making money is not the supreme value. The manner in which we do our business is no less important than the final payoff.
In another context, the Talmud offers two striking tales of the disposition which should govern our financial affairs. What is particularly noteworthy is that the moral exemplar in both is a gentile. In response to an inquiry as to the limits of honoring our parents, Rabbi Eliezer recounted the piety of one Dama ben Netinah who lived in Ashkelon. Officials from the Temple approached him to buy some precious stones for the special garment worn by the high priest, the Ephod. They were prepared to pay him a generous price. However, the keys to the chest containing the stones lay under the pillow on which his father was sleeping and Dama ben Netinah would not disturb his rest.
The following year a red heifer turned up among his cattle. As vital to the Temple ritual as it was rare, the animal immediately attracted the attention of the priests. When they again approached Dama ben Netinah, he said to them: "I know that if I asked you for all the money in the world, you would give it to me. All I want of you now is the sum that I lost last year because of my father" (BT Avodah Zarah 23b–24a).
The stories amplify the value system of Judaism. We need to work in order to maintain our sense of reality, independence and dignity. But that responsibility should never set aside the constraints that make us fully Jewish. While earning a living, we ought to be ever mindful of God's image in the other. As God's partners in creation, our mandate is to strive to be God–like.