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The Challenge of Wealth

Parshas Metzora

By Dr. Meir Tamari

We often think that legislation, public regulation or codes of ethics will produce an ethical market place. All these are necessary to achieve that aim, but they cannot produce the desired effect unless there is a consensus in society that certain actions or a type of social thinking are not acceptable. It is obvious that Judaism as a religion and spiritual movement would have such a consensus in addition to the legal framework. The concept of negaim, that forms the subject matter of the previous sedra and this one, is just such a consensus, objecting to social and immoral action in the marketplace.

Provision for the punishment of economic and social crimes, by the courts is the subject of many halakhot. However, there are many such crimes that cannot be the subject of court intervention and cannot be legislated against, since nobody knows the motives and the value structure of the individual or groups committing them.

The Talmud in Arachin 15b, lists all the anti-social actions that bring tzara'at to the body, the clothes, the utensils, and the houses of the Jewish people; which are enumerated in our sedrah. Among them are many that relate to business and commercial activities.

a. False oaths "And the tzara'at of Naaman shall come on {Gechazi who took a false oath to get gifts from Naaman}" (referring to II Kings 5:26).All too often people in their desire to make a sale or to convince another party to make an investment will, do everything in their power to convince them of the value of the goods sold or the investment suggested. In our own day the taking of oaths is not considered to be effective, but we resort to producing experts or the results of research which achieve the same goals. There is nothing wrong with such a use of information or expertise to make our goods or services more attractive. However, when such information is only partially true or has the effect of playing on the other parties beliefs, desires or even prejudices, then we are guilty of false oaths.

b. Pride "His [King Uziyhu] heart was arrogant, and he went into the Temple to burn incense [a prerogative only of the Cohanim] and he was angry with the priests [who tried to prevent him] leprosy rose on his forehead". This pride leads employers to browbeat and harass employees, and suppliers or large corporations to exploit their small suppliers or customers.

c. Theft "One who gathered wealth that does not really belong to them [which is the halakhic definition of theft] the priest will come and disburse all the goods and utensils that are in the house] through the plague of nega'im]".

d. Egoism/Selfishness -- "And the owner of the house [whose walls were plagued by nega'im]" (Leviticus 14: 25]. "Said Rabbi Yishmael, one who seeks absolute ownership and does not wish to lend any of their possessions to others [pretending poverty] G-d exposes the wealth when all the contents of the house are removed and publicly displayed" (Talmud, Yoma 11b).

The Midrash Rabbah adds its own list of anti-social actions; a lying tongue, arrogant eyes, spilling of innocent blood, thoughts of violence, feet ready to run for evil purposes, spreading lies, quarrels between brothers, and the giving of false witness. It is not difficult to envisage how a culture built on such anti-social attitudes will give rise to an immoral and unethical business and economic structure. This is done for us by the midrash, describing the generations before the Flood and their cultural and social development which lead to the sins for which the world was destroyed.

As human beings after Adam and Eve multiplied, so did the animals and the birds. People began to worry that there would not be enough natural resources to support them in their accustomed standard of living. They feared having to share their wealth with others. There was an increase in the proportion of weak and unproductive men and women. The animal and bird species, now called on to provide for an increased population, degenerated. So, means were sought to prevent economic catastrophe. Limitations were placed on population growth, and only the finest and strongest of all species were allowed to procreate. Alternative life styles, homosexuality and bestiality, both non-procreative sexual relations became rampant. Man taught the rest of creation to follow in his footsteps and "The whole world became depraved" ( Gensis, 6: 11). (Zohar Beresishit 56: see also Beresishit Rabbah 34).

When this was considered insufficient to save their wealth, robbery and theft became the norms. The crimes against property lead to bloodshed and murder, so that the social harmony that had existed despite the sexual immorality and idolatry that were rampant, was destroyed. In the Talmud (Bavli, Sanhedrin 108a), the Sages taught, "The destruction of the Flood was decreed only because of theft". We know that they sinned in idolatry, sexual immorality and murder, all of which are punishable by death, but it was theft --for which there is no death penalty - - that started to unravel their whole fabric (Shem MiShmuel). So, the anti-social crimes that in the case of the individual would have been punished by the various forms of Negaim, became translated into the crimes of society, punishable by the Flood.

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 ( in Jerusalem.



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