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Behar-Bechukotai 5783                    May 13, 2023

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom,

Verse 25:17 of this week’s parsha states: “Do not wrong one another, but fear your God; for I    Y-H-V-H am your God.” This is one verse in the Torah that in many ways sums up why the Torah is not just a book of laws. If there are any lawyers here, you know, perhaps intuitively, that this verse is not enforceable. It is very vague and there is no way to understand when someone has violated it. It is telling us to “be good” but there is no standard by which we can define what is “good” and what is “wrong.” I know what it means when it says we can’t lie when we are under oath. I know what is required when the law says stop at a red light. I know what is forbidden when the law says, “don’t murder another human being.” But what is the Torah talking about in this verse in our parsha?

This, in some ways, is a catch all law that perhaps is designed to cover in general what a specific law may be interpreted to miss. Perhaps it means that we can’t be mean to each other. Perhaps it implies we can’t hold a grudge against someone. Maybe it is teaching us not to get angry with other people and do something we may regret. It is hard to know what “wronging your neighbor” is all about.

Of course, if the Torah is not clear, we always have the Rabbis of the Talmud to try and clear up the intention of this commandment. The context of our verse is about the Jubilee year, that 50th year when all land reverts to its original owner. If someone wants to sell land, they can only sell it for the number of years until the next Jubilee year arrives. If the land reverts many years into the future, one can get a good price for the land. If there are only a few years until the next Jubilee, then clearly it is not worth as much. If this is the context, then our verse implies that the issue is fraud. It refers to someone selling the land for more than it is worth because of the approach of the Jubilee. It leaves us with the question, how much is paying too much?

The Talmud, in the fourth chapter of the tractate Bava Metziah, spells out the definition of fraud. It reads “The measure of fraud for which one can claim that he was exploited is four silver ma’a from the twenty-four silver ma’a in a sela, or one-sixth of the transaction.”  In the sale of land or, for that matter, in any sale, one cannot ask a buyer to pay more than one sixth of the actual value of the item or the land. And, I should add, it also applies to the buyer. The buyer can’t offer less than one sixth of the actual value. If the purchase price is more or less than six percent of the actual value, the one defrauded can ask for their money back and return what was bought.

When the Torah says you can’t “wrong” another person, it is telling us that we can’t lie about the value of an item to increase our profit or in order to pay less than the item is worth. Dr. Joshua Kulp, a professor of Talmud at the Schechter Institute and the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem comments on this issue “the essential law is clear. People cannot take advantage of one another while engaging in business. If an object, an idea or even an entire company is worth a certain amount, the seller cannot falsely claim it is worth more, nor can the buyer falsely claim it is worth less. A person can, of course, tell another that the object he owns is worth 100 dollars, but he will only sell it for 150. But he cannot say it is worth 150, when it is worth 100.”

As we can see, there is no law that teaches a Jew cannot make a profit when something is sold, but there is a limit to the profit. When negotiating a price, it is proper to ask for the best, lowest price, but there is a limit to the haggling. Every item has a value and if it goes up or down, the limit of negotiation, up or down, is six percent. It is forbidden to inflate the price and it is forbidden to devalue the object in order to get a better deal. It is also true, as Dr. Kulp notes, that as long as one is honest about the real value of the item, you can ask for as much as you want. Depending on how much the buyer wants the item or how badly the seller wants to be rid of the object, one can pay more or less than the six percent. But it has to be done with a full knowledge of the objects’ real value.

There is a famous story in the Midrash about Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach, who purchased a donkey from an Arab merchant. The rabbi paid an appropriate price for the donkey and the bridle. When the students brought the donkey to his home, and removed the bridle, they found stuck inside, a precious pearl. The students were overjoyed. They ran to the rabbi and told him that in addition to the donkey and the bridle, the Arab had sold them the pearl as well. The Rabbi asked his students if the Arab knew that the pearl was inside the bridle. They answered, “of course not, who could afford the donkey if the price was that of the value of the pearl?” The Rabbi then ordered his students to return the pearl to the Arab. The students protested that according to the terms of the sale, the pearl now belonged to Rabbi Shimon. Rabbi Shimon taught, “Do you think that I should stand by the letter of the law and wrong this poor man when he had no idea what he was selling? Return the pearl.

It is said that when the pearl was returned, the Arab exclaimed, “Blessed be Rabbi Shimon and Blessed be the God of Rabbi Shimon!” We learn that being honest and kind not only builds trust and friendship, but it also brings honor to our faith and to God.

But how we navigate the give and take of items in the market is only a part of the explanation; there are other forms of fraud that the Talmud extends our verse to include. Dr. Kulp goes on to explain how the Talmud extends the definition of wronging someone else. He writes, “The Mishnah goes on to state that fraud applies not only to money and things, but also to the way we speak to one another. Mishnah Bava Metzia 4:10 states, “Just as the laws of fraud apply to buying and selling, so too they apply to the spoken word. One may not say, ‘How much is this object?’, if he does not wish to buy it. If one had repented, another should not say to him, ‘Remember your earlier deeds.’ If one descended from converts, another should not say to him, ‘Remember the deeds of your ancestors.’ When one inquires about buying something, the buyer gives the impression that they are interested in buying the object, If the buyer has no intent of doing so, then they are defrauding the other person. It is a form of harm to another person to remind them that the way they are now is not the way they were in the past, for it robs them of their current identity. The fact that the verse ends with “for I am the Lord your God” implies that fraud is an offense not only against the other person but also against God. Even if the other party does not realize they have been defrauded, God, the ultimate arbiter of honesty, does.

How does one pass a law that people should be good? How does one write a law that everyone should be honest? Representative George Santos was indicted this week for his extraordinary acts of dishonesty. It is true that the indictment only alleges these crimes, but Santo’s lies have been documented from the time he won his seat. Oddly, he even claimed to be Jewish when he is not Jewish by any definition and when he was confronted about it, finally he admitted he was not Jewish but “Jew-ish.” He should be glad he is not a real Jew because his actions would have violated the laws of the Torah in our parsha this week.

We are being commanded to be like Rabbi Simon ben Shetach. There may be laws about how honest we need to be to comply with Jewish law, but we also have a duty to practice our honesty to a higher standard. We can’t pretend to buy something if we have no intention of buying it. We have no right to embarrass someone by ignoring who they are and holding them accountable for a past that cannot be changed. When the Torah cites a commandment and finishes the command with the words, “I am Y-H-V-H your God” we learn that God demands more from us than just the letter of the law. We hold ourselves to a higher standard.

Dr. Kulp concludes, –just because something is legal according to the rules of the game, does not make it moral in real life. Real life need not be [a game], with winners and losers. The Torah teaches us that in our business dealings we should be aiming for a higher goal, one in which our wins do not come at the expense of others' losses.”

We find ourselves living in a world that demands winning must leave losers behind. Business does not have to be that way and neither does life. Judaism teaches us that there is an element of honesty and fairness that also must exist in life. Our responsibility is to make sure that cheaters do not prosper. That even free markets must have rules to govern dishonesty and fraud. In our world, where every fact is challenged in order to advance some idea or some personality, we need to affirm that honesty counts, fairness is required, and nobody can rise to the top by pushing someone else down.

Our Parsha teaches: “Do not wrong one another but fear your God; for I Y-H-V-H am your God.” Morality requires us to do no harm, to not wrong another person, for God’s standards insure a fair chance for every human being.

May God help us to live by the values of fairness, honesty, and kindness and to create a world where, in spite of the beautiful mountains, everyone has an even playing field to live their life as we say …                               

Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Thu, May 30 2024 22 Iyyar 5784