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B’har: Do Not Oppress

Updated: May 24

This week’s Torah portion, B’Har addresses issues of economic justice and social equality, environmental stewardship – the sabbatical and Jubilee years. All of these are meaningful and important and worthy of a full and rich sermon. And none of them are what I’d like to address right now.

Instead- I call your attention to Leviticus Chapter 25, verses 15 and 17, which caution us not to oppress each other and, specifically, not to cheat each other in business. Being a religious person goes way beyond coming to shul and observing Shabbat and holidays. The true essence of what it means to be a Jew resides much more in how we behave in the world and how we treat each other than how many hours a week we come to temple. Not that you SHOULDN’T come to temple.

Just that coming here ALONE does not make you a religious person.

These two verses reinforce this notion.

The Torah is clearly addressing a business environment, which is how Rashi interprets the text, saying, “One may not deceive another in business.” So important is it to be scrupulously honest in how we do business, that the Talmud ( BT Shabbat 31a) suggests that “Did you conduct your business affairs honestly?” will be one of the questions on God’s final exam, that is, one of the questions we will have to answer when we are asked to give an accounting for how we lived our lives as we stand in God’s presence after our death.

There is a classic story of Rabbi Safra (BT Makkot 24a) who had listed an item for sale, and when a prospective buyer came by, the rabbi was in the midst of davening, praying the Shema. He did not reply to the price offered, and the buyer thought that it must be that the offer was too low. So they raised the offer. When the rabbi finished his prayer, he said, “Pay me the original price, as it is more than fair and I had every intention of saying yes.” This is what it means to live by our highest values.

If you have an item for sale, it is perfectly okay to praise all of its fine attributes. It’s so shiny and beautiful and useful and well- made. However, we read in Mesilat Yesharim (11), it is forbidden to hide the defects of the object in order to close the sale. You can’t bury the bad strawberries underneath the beautiful ones in order to get someone to buy them. And we know that it is also wrong to withhold someone’s wages, based on the verse in this week’s parsha that it is forbidden for us to wrong each other. If we hire someone to work for us, we are obligated to pay them promptly. (Rambam Hilchot Mechira 13:7, based on Lev. 25:17)

Our tradition also instructs us that it is contrary to Jewish law to ask the price of something that we have no intention to buy. (BT Baba Metzia 4:10) Are you allowed to comparison shop? Of course. What is prohibited is going into a store to learn all about the merchandise for sale, the various features of products, to take up the salesperson’s time so that you can go to another store to make a purchase, or, more commonly these days, to go home and order it on the internet. You can’t pretend that you MIGHT buy it and falsely raise the hopes of the salesperson.

Business ethics applies both to the seller and to the consumer. This is one aspect of the other way we understand these verses. The other is regarding how we speak to each other. The rabbis understand that “Sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never harm me” is NOT a true statement. The harm that words can cause is incalculable, well beyond elevating the hopes of a salesperson. I imagine that there is not one person in this room who has not been harmed by words.

Sefer HaChinnuch suggests that wronging someone with words is worse than wronging their property. The author says that “It would not be possible to write in detail all the words that could bring pain to people.” He attempts to elaborate- that we should not say anything to someone that would cause them pain or distress, and that we should refrain from reminding them of wrong they’ve done in the past. If they have repented and moved on, who are we to throw their actions in their face.

The Talmud quotes the words of Imma Shalom, one of the rare moments when the teaching of a woman is highlighted. She teaches that “All the gates of Heaven may be locked, except for the gates of prayer for victims of verbal mistreatment.” (BT Baba Metzia 59b) The same Talmudic discussion concludes that embarrassing another person is considered the equivalent of murder. When we harm someone with words, we kill their soul. Money can be returned. There is no way to erase the pain caused by our thoughtless words.

“Lo tonu, al tonu,” don’t wrong another in business, don’t hurt them with words. Two simple words to live by.

In the week ahead, may we take them to heart.

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