The Challenge of Wealth
By Dr. Meir Tamari
Shimon bar Yochai taught, “The Olah is only brought for evil thoughts”. Said Rabbi Levi, “This is explicit in the verse ‘HaOlah (that which cometh) into your mind, shall not be to worship wood and stone’ (Ezikiel, 20:32)” (Midrash Rabbah, Vayikra 7:3). “The Olah atones for non-fulfillment of positive mitzvoth (like the person who forgot to give charity or to put on tefillin) or for a negative mitzvah related to a positive one (the injunction against closing ones hands not to give charity), both errors only in thought” (Talmud Bavli, Yoma 36a). It is clear that there is punishment for the sinful thought process. “You shall not covet” is after all one of the Ten Commandments and it is obviously aimed at thought crimes.
Such thoughts are the primary factor in all our actions since ‘the thought is father to the deeds’. This is particularly the case in economic immorality. The desire for wealth is a positive and beneficial one and that desire is the force which motivates people to produce and to acquire wealth and economic assets. It brings in its wake progress and prosperity, Our Rabbis’ once caught the Evil Inclination and imprisoned him. They thought that now only good would motivate Man, only to find that there wasn’t even one fertilized egg to be found and people were simply not making any effort to develop the world and to engage, amongst other things, in economic activity. This means that thoughts about other peoples’ wealth or standard of living would be a positive thing because it would encourage us to try and emulate them. However, that is only one side of the coin. The down side of those thoughts is that the chase after an ever rising standard of living often causes us to achieve unethically, what we can not obtain through ethical means. The slippery slope of greed is constant and greed is after all one of the main sources of business immorality. In Pirkei Avot (Chapter 5, Mishnah 13) the rasha is defined not as one who takes another’s possessions, but as one who lusts after them, saying “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is (also) mine”.
The Rambam codified the legal situation of these thoughts insofar as economics and business are concerned. “One who covets and exerts social or any other kind of pressure on the owner to sell, even though he pays market price, and there is no punishment since there has been no illegal action, nevertheless his atonement requires a korban. (Hilkhot Gezeilah VeAveidah, Chapter 1: Halachot 9-11)
The problem is how to punish one for these thoughts, or for that matter how is somebody supposed to know that another person has such thoughts. The example given by the Codes is the story of Navot and his vineyard, as described in 1 Kings, Chapter 21. Navot had a vineyard adjacent to the home of the King Ahab in Jezreel, which the King coveted. His pressure on Navot to sell it to him or to exchange it for a far superior vineyard was of no avail. The King, in the language of the Tanach, was depressed, refused to eat or drink and turned his face to the wall in a monumental sulk. His non-Jewish queen, Jezebel, promised to get the vineyard for him; and so cure him of his frustration. She brought trumped up charges of blasphemy against Navot, and on the evidence of bribed witnesses, Navot was found guilty and put to death. His property, including his vineyard became the property of the Crown. When King Ahab went to take possession of the vineyard, which he had coveted, he was met by the Prophet Elijah who challenged him, saying, “Hast thou murdered and also come to take possession?”. First comes the coveting, then the pressure on the owner to part with his property, and if he does not do so it leads to murder.
These thoughts are always influenced by the standard of living of the surrounding society and the high pressure persuasion of the advertising industry in both the written and electronic media. More becomes better than less and we are convinced that we never have enough. The average person finds it almost impossible to withstand these pressures whereby wants, which are unlimited, are translated into needs. Then we have to devote more time and more effort to find the means to fund our new requirements. We become slaves then to our needs and have to satisfy them either through moral and legal means; where these are insufficient, we will do so through immoral and unethical ones.
These pressures do not absolve us from unethical or immoral thinking in the economic sphere; they only make it more difficult for the individual to withstand them.
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.