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Rabbi Sydni's Shabbat Sermons

פרשת בהר-בחקתי, תש״פ

Parshat B'har-B'hukotai, 5780

by Rabbi Sydni

Saturday, May 16th, 2020

Moderation and Compassion: A Jewish Ethic of Buying and Selling

Every year, on the Friday before ordination at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, one of our deans teaches a notoriously lengthy Mishnah to the graduating rabbis, in the presence of family, friends and teachers. You can see the immense length of the sixth mishnah of the sixth chapter of Pirkei Avot; it goes through a whole list of qualities through which Torah can be acquired. Yes, Torah can be acquired through study, but it can also be acquired through forty-seven other ways in which a person should be a mensch. Along with showing compassion and embracing joy, among others, is the quality of miut s’horah, showing moderation in business and use of money. Throughout rabbinical school, in my studies about professional development and community building, I had class sessions devoted to the structure of synagogue dues, intelligent budgeting. For the rabbis responsible for naming new rabbis, this miut s’horah, attention to business ethics, is just as essential to teach new rabbis any other aspect of humility, honesty, and justice.

Rabbi or not, each of us spends an incredible chunk of our time acting as an employer or employee, a buyer or a seller, a service provider or a recipient of services. As Judaism is not just an on-again off-again set of activities, but rather, an ever-present identity, the way we act in situations involving money and business must reflect our Torah. In Leviticus 25:14, our Torah says quite plainly, “When you sell something to your fellow or buy from your fellow, a person should not oppress his brother.” And just two verses later, in verse 16, “And a person should not oppress his fellow, and fear your God! For I am Adonai, your God!”

I want to pause for a moment and zoom out to the larger context of our parshah. This week, we’re reading about shmitah and yovel; every seventh year, lands and property belonging to the Jewish people must celebrate their own Shabbat - no one living in the land of Israel may cultivate her fields during this sabbatical year. The produce from that field becomes free for everyone, person and animal, to feast on. At the outset of this seventh year, as well, all debts are remitted; loans are cancelled. Now, even these sets of seven years, these shmitot, have a Shabbat of their own. On Yom Kippur, every seven cycles of seven years, a shofar blasts throughout the land, proclaiming dror, freedom! In that jubilee year, in addition to all of the practices of shmitah, all Hebrew slaves go free, and all land returns to its original owners.

With these systems of shmitah, a produce free-for-all and remission of debts every seven years, and yovel, physical freedom for all and reshuffling of ownership, the people Israel are urged to think about stuff and property as more of an experience of ours than of mine. For, as 20th century Biblical scholar Nechama Leibowitz teaches in her introduction to the parshah, “The sensation of mine is fraught with danger.” Ownership is fleeting, and the best we can do with what we have is to set it up in a way that benefits all who might have in the future, all who might be in a position to support us when we need it, too.

It is only appropriate, then, that the conversation around land and loans and freedom is interrupted by those twin statements: “When you sell something to your fellow or buy from your fellow, a person should not oppress his fellow.” And then, “And a person should not oppress her fellow, and fear your God! For I am Adonai, your God!” Our medieval commentators ask, why do we need both statemetns? Some like to think about the first verse as speaking about dealing ethically with money and goods, while the second verse reminds individuals to pursue ethics in dealing with the words. Our Torah overflows with concrete commands about right action involving finance - don’t steal; pay your workers on time; if someone gives you his only coat as collateral on a loan, and he doesn’t pay you back by evening, give him his coat so that he doesn’t freeze overnight. Again and again, we have the command to combat poverty in our midst, using our own personal funds to redeem our neighbors when they find themselves in dire straits.

But the idea of right use of words is less concrete. Rashi warns us not to give faulty advice to or to mock those with whom we work, and Rambam suggests never to embarrass someone by asking her opinion on a field of study or industry we know she knows nothing about. Nechama Leibowitz gives an all-too-familiar example. She writes:

People enter a shop, sniff around, look at one item, then ask to see another, ask the price, wish to see the article on the top shelf, finger the cloth, and on being told the price, spurn it with a grimace. Then they show interest in another item: How much? And repeat the procedure. And all this is just for the fun of it, to while away the time until the bus arrives, not really desiring to buy anything.

In a world fraught with commerce, it is all too easy to use subtle psychology to break another person down. It is all too easy to assert our power over another either to purposefully intimidate or just because we have the luxury of not having to pay attention to her needs at a certain moment in time. However, shmitah and yovel throw a wrench in the idea of my needs versus yours. If I can’t really own my property or my money for more than a few years at a time, then my needs become subsumed into ours. My need, now, is that we all succeed. In order for that success to happen, I need to act towards my competitors and my subordinates, both, as equal colleagues, all striving for the same goal of lifting each other up. When God proclaims at the end of our second verse, Ani Adonai Eloheikhem, “I am Adonai your God,” the your is plural, referring to all of you, not just the individual. God created and still creates a world in which my material wealth depends on yours, and vice versa. All this land and all this stuff, in the end, will only be and has only been ours for so long; ultimately, it all belongs to God.

Even today, we know that the financial and emotional consideration of the other in any transaction is crucial to achieving personal and societal success. We know that shopping local boosts the local economy. We know that workplace morale can directly affect the quality and success of any product or service. We want to do business with someone we trust and with whom we want to spend time. In a world in which we no longer practice shemitah or yovel, we have a huge array of actions we still can take to remind ourselves of our shared responsibility for each other’s well being. We can start with a simple smile and thank you to those grocery store and delivery workers, those doctors and nurses who have no choice about whether or not to stay home and healthy right now. When we buy take-out for dinner, we can support a Shreveport-based restaurant, one that might be struggling after two months of reduced profits. In our own businesses, we can check our integrity each time we make or take an offer, set a price or wage, and advertise our services. In every single transaction, know that the Torah presents a duty to you to recognize that the money you spend and earn will never permanently be yours; it will always be ours.

As I look back at rabbinical school, I think about all the time spent learning about business administration, when I could have been studying Talmud instead. As I look back on the past ten months of being here at Agudath Achim, I think back at each of the moments in which I said a little thank you for those classes on business management and ethical, efficient use of discretionary funds. I recognize that money is not just a necessary evil; rather, it can be a source for enriching the lives of individuals and communities, as long as it is used with proper insight. On this Shabbat, a day in which we customarily rest from conversation and action involving business, let us take the time to appreciate the materials we do have now and what positive good they help us with each day. And then, let us reflect on what we can do during the week to take more compassionate control of the certainty we have that this small wealth will not be ours forever, that it is inherently shared by those with whom we share our world. Shabbat Shalom.