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The Challenge of Wealth - Class 3

Parshas Korach

By Dr. Meir Tamari

The answer that Moses gives to the claims of Korach is actually a Torah perspective on the potential for abuse of power and of wealth. His answers are not directly related to the claims of the rebels, but rather a disclaimer of personal benefit from his position of power. They claimed he usurped and misappropriated spiritual and religious rights: those of the first born to be priests, those of all the people to be equal in sanctity and those of the families of the Levites to be priests. Their cry was, "all the people are holy". Moses turns to Hashem and says," turn not to their offering; not one ass have I taken from them, and not one of them have I hurt" (BaMidbar, 6:5). The midrashic sources flesh out his answer. They tell us that when he brought his wife and children to Egypt, in order to lead the Jews out of there, he transported them at his own expense. So too, every time his tent had to be dismantled or erected, he did not use the public service facilities to do so, as he was entitled to in view of his position.

This answer is paralleled by that of another leader, one considered to be an equal to Moses and Aaron. When Israel demanded a King, Samuel the prophet, made them bear witness to his own avoidance of the abuse of power. "Whose ox have I taken? Whose ass have I taken? Whom have I oppressed? With who have I curried favor? Of whose hand have I received any bribe to blind mine eyes?" (Samuel 1,12:3). The sages, seeing the use of the singular in the peoples answer, said that HaShem added; "I bear witness that Samuel did none of these things even in secret, beyond the sight and knowledge of human beings".

When the text tells us that the sons of Samuel took bribes [Samuel 1,8:3], the Rabbis explained this in the number of ways that sound amazingly modern and sophisticated. "Samuel had been a Circuit-Judge reaching every corner of Israel, to render justice in each town. His sons, however, remained in Beer Sheva in order to increase the wages of their clerks and lawyers" (Shabbat, 56a). Thereby they increased the cost of justice. This was further exaggerated, by forcing the people to come from the far corners of the land. They made justice expensive and cumbersome, in effect a travesty. The same source continues to tell us that they took more than their share of the tithes, or forced businessmen to co-op them as partners thereby using their power to obtain personal benefit from the profits or they took by force the priestly gifts, that halahkically can given at the owners discretion. All these were forms of the abuse of power and therefore considered as bribery.

Abuse of power and wealth is not limited to public officials, elected or appointed, but pertains to everyone in the marketplace and in business. The economically weaker partner can be easily abused, insulted and exploited in many different ways. Employers have great power over their employees regarding wages, labor conditions and downsizing. Theoretically these are all set by the workings of the free market; however, in practice everybody knows that there is great place for discretion and personal decisions that are often expressions of power. Large firms have a power that flows from economic strength that can be used and is used against small suppliers, especially those who have a sole customer. Such power is used to squeeze margins of profit, determine dates of payment that that are beneficial to the large firms and to cease a relationship at their discretion, even though this may mean the destruction of a small firm. Sexual harassment, of unwilling or willing partners, is in reality an expression of the power of position and wealth in business, since employment or advancement can be dependent on sexual favors.

There is an area in which the public and private sectors meet and is often the arena of bribery on the one hand and the abuse of power on the other. It is common knowledge that corporations in the Western world find themselves expected, in foreign countries, to give bribes in order to receive licenses or to win tenders. The public officials or elected politicians there, abuse the power given to them by their governments or by their citizens in order to enrich themselves. There is, however, an even more sophisticated and subtle scenario that is common in developed Western countries. Enron is only the latest case of this mixture of bribery and abuse of power. At one level, it takes the form of contributions to the campaigns of political figures or to the parties in power in the government. The political contributions by Enron are seen by many, as explaining the weakness of the regulatory agencies in policing the financial practices that led to its collapse. There is another more subtle level that explains the delay of the professional institutions in making public, the weaknesses of Enron. As long as there were big commissions to be earned from the boosting and selling of Enron stock, the analysts, the stockbrokers and the financial advisers allowed themselves to be blinded to the faults and fissures in Enron's financial structure. They thereby abused the power they have over the investment portfolios of their clients and customers.

Our Sages taught that, "It is not the mouse that steals but the hole". The giver of a bribe is as guilty as the one who accepts it. So too, citizens of a country or community who do not vigorously protest the abuse of power by their elected or appointed officials and do not actively work for their removal, are simply the hole referred to by our Sages.


Copyright © 2002 by Rabbi Meir Tamari and Project Genesis, Inc.

Dr. Tamari is a renowned economist, Jewish scholar, and founder of the Center For Business Ethics (www.besr.org) in Jerusalem.


 






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