The Bottom Line
Chapter 5, Law 13
"The business dealings of the Torah scholar are with truth and
faithfulness. His 'no' means 'no' and his 'yes' means 'yes' (lit., "he
says on 'no' 'no' and on 'yes' 'yes'.") He is exacting upon himself in
computations, and he gives and is forgiving to others when he buys from
them. And he should not be exacting regarding them. He pays for
merchandise immediately (i.e., without buying on credit). He should not
become a guarantor [for others' loans], nor come [before the court] with
power of attorney [to represent another].
"He obligates himself in matters of buying and selling even in cases in
which the Torah does not obligate him, in order that he fulfill his word
without change. [Whereas] if others become obligated to him by law, he is
patient with them (lit., 'he prolongs for them') and forgives them.
"He lends graciously (lit., 'he lends and is gracious'). He does not
compete in his fellow's profession. And he never causes anguish to any
person in the world during his lifetime.
"The rule of the matter is that [the Torah scholar] should be of the
pursued and not the pursuers, of the oppressed and not the oppressors. And
one who does all these acts and the like, regarding him the verse
states, "And He said to me, 'You are My servant, Israel, in whom I will be
glorified'" (Isaiah 49:3)."
The Rambam this week is continuing to discuss the more upright behavior
appropriate for the Torah scholar. This law relates closely to the
previous, discussing the scholar's business practices.
The basic theme this week is that the scholar must be impeccable in his
business dealings. There are many good and straightforward reasons for
this, as we'll discuss below. Beforehand, however, I'd like to take quick
note of an interesting side issue in the Rambam.
There were two points the Rambam made which surprised me when I first read
them. (The commentators in fact struggle to find a source for the first of
them.) They are that one should not guarantee his fellow's loan nor
represent him in court. It appears that the Rambam frowns on getting
oneself entangled in another's legal or financial quandaries. As great as
charity and acts of kindness are, one should generally avoid assuming
responsibility for legal or financial messes which are not his own.
Beyond this, the Rambam's advice this week is readily understandable. The
Torah scholar's professional life must be beyond reproach. He must keep
both his word and the law to the letter, the spirit and beyond. His
greatness in Torah wisdom must reflect itself in all areas of his life.
His Torah study must never be an abstract exercise in developing his mind
or contemplating his G-d. It must rather be a meaningful and practical
exercise in improving his character and behavior. His wisdom must manifest
itself in his real-life behavior. Even beyond the specific legal laws he
studies, the scholar's Torah study must transform him into a greater and
more considerate human being.
Further, the Torah scholar must always keep in mind that his behavior
reflects on the Torah itself. People judge the Torah not so much on the
wisdom of its words but on how its practitioners behave. If the scholar
cuts off other drivers or outmaneuvers others in business -- even in ways
not technically illegal -- others will not see his misconduct as his own
personal failings but as a reflection on the Torah he studies. If one can
study Torah and allegedly be close to G-d and act like *that* (whatever
the that is) -- then there's obviously not much to Judaism and no point to
seeking spirituality. To begin with people are always looking for excuses
not to pursue religion; the Torah scholar should not be the one to offer
A final reason the Torah scholar must be especially meticulous in his
dealings is the simple result of his understanding of Divine providence.
If the scholar truly understands that everything that occurs in this world
is because G-d determines it, then what really is the point of attempting
to pull a fast one on one's customer or competitor and earn a few bucks?
Doesn't G-d ultimately determine his bottom line? The Talmud states that a
person's yearly income is determined every year at Rosh Hashanah (Beitzah
16a). Now if G-d wants me to have another thousand -- and I'm putting in
my reasonable efforts -- I'm sure He'll be able to provide it without my
having to resort to questionable practices. Do you really think G-d
decreed at Rosh Hashanah that Joe Schmoe will earn $50,000 this year --
but only provided that he claim this and fail to report that and falsify
something else? (None of which are exactly a 'yes' which means 'yes'
and 'no' which means 'no'.)
Rabbis often complain that laymen regularly approach them with questions
regarding shady business practices. Can I tell the IRS or the insurance
company this when it is "basically" true, while concealing this or that
inconvenient little detail? Or can I tell the airlines I'm going to here
and coming from there etc.? (As R. Yitzchak Berkovitz once put it, telling
the airline things not exactly kosher -- or certainly not as kosher as the
glatt kosher meal they intend to order along the way.)
Well, I guess it's certainly better that such laymen ask rather than do
without asking. But the point is far more basic than if such practices are
legitimate from a legal standpoint, or if a loophole can or cannot be
found. Rather, the real issue is one of belief in G-d. If you really
believe G-d is calling the shots, then what really is the point of even
trying to steal -- or cut some ethical corners? You might fool your
customer, but do you really think G-d is going to let you get away with it
and come out ahead?
And keep in mind, G-d doesn't need perform open miracles to ensure your
scam doesn't succeed. You may come out ahead here but mysteriously your
fridge or car engine will give way very shortly after. Pirkei Avos
states, "The collectors make their rounds constantly every day"
3:20 . If G-d really does
control our bottom line -- which the Torah scholar of all people must
certainly believe -- then it should come as no surprise that crime quite
literally does not pay.
I once heard the following story regarding R. Yosef Dov Soloveichik, past
rosh yeshiva (dean) of Yeshiva Rav Yitzchak Elchanan (of Yeshiva
University www.yu.edu). He once retired to his study to work out a
particularly difficult Talmudic topic, telling his wife beforehand that he
needed some uninterrupted time and he was not to be disturbed by visitors.
A short while later, a fellow came along knocking loudly at the door of
the rabbi's study, asking for a donation for his cause. When the rabbi
inquired as to how he was granted entry, he explained that he comes every
year for a donation and he was sure the rabbi wouldn't mind his brief
visit. "Well then," said R. Soloveichik, not even trying to hide his
annoyance, "every year I give you $25. This year I'm only giving 10!" And
he abruptly sent the fellow off.
The rabbi then returned to his studies. Not long after that, a loud crash
came from the front of his house. When the rabbi hurried out to see what
had occurred, he found that his wife, while backing out the car, ran over
and destroyed their garbage can. Quickly putting two and two together
(which naturally, the rabbi was quite good at), R. Soloveichik asked his
wife how much it would cost to replace the garbage can. The reply -- $15.
After that incident, R. Soloveichik would use that story to illustrate the
enigmatic concept of bringing a goat-offering to Azazel (see Leviticus
16), in which the High Priest during the Yom Kippur Temple service would
ostensibly offer a sacrifice to Satan. The priest would confess Israel's
sins upon the goat and send it to a rocky, desolate cliff to be pushed off
to its death. Although there are much more Kabbalistic explanations of
this service, the simples idea is as follows. We are taking all
the "benefit" we derived throughout the year serving Satan and destroying
it, as if to say we now recognize that it was all illusory. We never
gained from obeying Satan. We might have thought we did initially, but
after all is said and done we never came out ahead, neither in this world
nor the next. Sooner or later G-d collects his debts. The gain we
*thought* we accrued we now return to Satan and destroy, in acknowledgment
that it was never truly ours.
This I feel is the most important message of the Rambam this week. And
speaking personally, I've found this to be the strongest deterrent against
dishonesty myself -- the clear understanding that G-d controls the
ultimate outcome of all things. I personally had two incidents shortly
after we moved to Israel in which due to bureaucratic error and the like,
we were handed relatively large sums of money we didn't deserve. In both
cases, I'm happy to say, we promptly returned the money. (In one of the
cases the government agency afterwards realized its mistake anyway.) For
again, if G-d really wants Dovid Rosenfeld to become rich (which
apparently, He does not), I can't imagine He will only do so if I take
income of questionable legitimacy. G-d has His ways and no shortage of
reliable messengers -- both to give and to take back. We would do well to
recognize that in the final analysis it all depends on Him.
Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org