When It Comes to Speech, Mind Your Business

Parashat Behar-Bechukotai / פרשת בהר־בחקתי
Torah Portion: Leviticus 25:1 – 27:34 

:וְלֹא תוֹנוּ אִישׁ אֶת־עֲמִיתוֹ וְיָרֵאתָ מֵֽאֱלֹהֶיךָ כִּי אֲנִי יְהוָֹה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶֽם
“You shall not wrong one another, but fear your God; for I am the Lord your God.” Leviticus 25:17

This week’s Torah reading provides the basis for much of Judaism’s teachings on the ethics of business. For example, when selling property shortly before the jubilee year, when all property outside walled cities was to be returned to its original owner, the seller is directed to pro-rate the sale price of the property according to the number of years remaining until the land remits back to its original owner. In this discussion, the Torah exhorts the seller: “You shall not wrong one another.” In other words, the seller should hold himself or herself to the highest ethical ideals and refrain from cheating, misleading or harming the buyer in any way.

The phrase “You shall not wrong one another” appears twice in chapter 25, once in verse 14 and once in verse 17. The second appearance includes the words “…but fear your God; for I am the Lord your God.” Modern scholars point out that the repetition serves to emphasize the importance of ethical business practices.[1] The additional words in verse 17 demonstrate that even if the seller can surely get away with an ethical violation, he or she must remember that, though no human may become aware of his ill intentions, God is all-knowing (at least, in the biblical mindset) and will ultimately bring the wrongdoer to justice.

Traditional commentators read more into the repetition of “You shall not wrong one another” than mere emphasis, however. For them, since the Torah uses its words economically, the second appearance must mean something different from the first. Thus, they explain that the first appearance deals with the business transaction itself, and the second deals with the ethics of speech.

Rashi, the medieval French commentator, writes:

By contrast to verse 14, here the phrase refers to wrongdoing one another by speech. You must not belittle anyone, nor deliberately give him advice that would work out to your benefit rather than his. Should you be tempted to say, “Who could know for sure that I deliberately intended to harm him” the verse adds: “Fear your God.” The One who knows thoughts will know. Any time the text mentions something that only the person who is thinking it could know for sure, it adds, “fear your God.”[2]

I was once on a panel for jury selection in a case involving a defendant accused of reneging on a business deal. While we didn’t learn the particulars of the case, one of the attorneys hinted at its nature when he asked us prospective jurors: “Do you consider a verbal agreement to be a binding contract? Raise your hand if ‘Yes.'” Had the biblical authors been in the room, they would have raised their hands at that moment; they believed a person’s word was sacred, that a promise became real as soon as it passed the lips. You might be able to fool people through clever use of words, but you can’t fool God.

Sadly, unscrupulous business people frequently deceive consumers with slick language. I, for one, have fallen prey to verbal bait and switch tactics twice in my adult in my adult life. In neither case did I see it coming. I trusted that what I was told up front was the truth. I was wrong. (“Buyer beware” is also an important Jewish value, by the way.) Interestingly, in each of these cases the salesperson was no longer working at his or her place of business six months later. Apparently, management caught on to them and meted out punishment. I wonder if they were acting as agents of the Divine in these cases or, perhaps, they beat God to the punch.

One lesson to learn from the traditional commentators is that you can’t separate out the mechanics of business from the words used to conduct business. Whether it be advertising through the media or a face-to-face sales pitch, the words used to sell a product and close a deal really do matter. One should seek to be honest in all aspects of business, from how one exchanges money and writes up a contract to how one speaks to the customer in person or through advertising.

Another lesson to learn from this discussion is that there’s more to the ethics of speech in Judaism than the prohibition against lashon hara, that is, “evil speech” such as gossip and slander, which are spoken about others. What you say to people in their presence and how you make them feel are also guided by Jewish values. This last point is illustrated beautifully by the following midrash:

Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel told Tavi, his servant, “Go to the marketplace and buy some food that is good.” Tavi went to the marketplace and returned with tongue. Afterward, Rabbi Shimon said to Tavi, “Go to the marketplace and buy some food this is bad.” Tavi again went to the marketplace and returned with tongue.

“What is this?” asked Rabbi Shimon. “When I told you to buy food that is good, you bought tongue, and when I told you to buy food that is bad, you also bought tongue.”

Tavi replied, “From a tongue can come good and from a tongue can come bad. When a tongue is good, there is nothing better. But when a tongue is bad there is nothing worse.” (Vayikra Rabbah 33:1)[3]

I’ve never liked tongue, and why Rabbi Shimon would instruct his servant to purchase bad meat is beyond my comprehension. These misgivings aside, the moral of the story is clear: we can use our tongues to benefit the world, and we can use our tongues to injure the world. Whether in a shop or an office, in school or at home, may we strive to control our tongues so as not to wrong one another.

[1] Baruch Levine, The JPS Torah Commentary: Leviticus, (Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), p. 173.

[2] Michael Carasik, The Commentator’s Bible: The JPS Miqra’ot Gedolot, Leviticus, (Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society, 2009), p. 208.

[3] Zelig Pliskin, Love Your Neighbor, (Brooklyn, NY: Aish HaTorah Publications, 1977), pp. 326-327.

“You’re Such an Angel!” What Kind of Compliment Is That?

Parashat Mishpatim / פרשת משפטים
Torah Portion: Exodus 21:1 – 24:18

All my life I’ve heard it said of kind, generous people that they are “angels.” Children who are especially loving are “angels.” The man who gives selflessly of his time and energy to help others is “an angel.” The wealthy woman who donates millions of dollars to charity is “an angel.” If an angel is one who carries out God’s will to make the world a better place, then we truly have angels all around us. Given the brokenness of the world in which we live, we could certainly use many, many more.

By calling someone an “angel” we recognize the actions of extraordinary people, if not their very beings, as holy. That said, there is an aspect of the heavenly angels, to which we intend to compare these beloved individuals, that, to my mind, is actually unflattering and terribly problematic. According to the sages, each angel in our sacred literature is tasked with one function, and one function only. Angels in the Torah, whether heavenly or human, are inherently narrow-minded, inflexible and unfeeling. They are unable to do anything that God hasn’t specifically instructed them to do, and they are incapable of operating from a place of discernment or conscience.

Take, for example, the malach, the angel, in this week’s reading, Parashat Mishpatim. Once God has finished enumerating a host of commandments to Moses atop Mt. Sinai, God renews the promise to bring the Israelites into Canaan, appointing an angel to guard the Israelites on their way and upon entering the land:

I am sending an angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have made ready. Pay heed to him and obey him. Do not defy him, for he will not pardon your offenses, since My Name is in him; but if you obey him and do all that I say, I will be an enemy to your enemies and a foe to your foes. (Exodus 23:20-22)

Who is this angel and what is his purpose in “guarding” Israel? More importantly, if God’s name is “in him” and God is “el rachum ve’hanun,” a compassionate, merciful God (Exodus 34:6-7) who shows forgiveness, why isn’t this angel able to pardon Israel’s offenses? If Israel should defy the angel or, worse, God — as we know she does later through building a golden calf at the foot of the mountain while Moses remains encamped with God at the top of the mountain (Exodus 32) – are we to believe that this angel will essentially abandon Israel in battle?

To answer these questions, let us take a look at Genesis 18. There, three messengers come to Abraham and Sarah to inform Sarah that she will soon give birth; to heal Abraham after his circumcision; and to destroy the city of Sodom. According to rabbinic lore, the angels were Michael, Raphael, and Gabriel, each of whom was assigned sole responsibility respectively for the aforementioned tasks (Talmud Bava Metzia 86b). In his commentary on Genesis 18:2, Rashi writes plainly, “One angel does not perform two errands.” Thus, like Michael, Raphael and Gabriel, the angel that will “guard” Israel on her journey has only this errand to perform: to guard Israel, nothing more.

Because the angel of Exodus 23 has only to guard Israel from harm, it cannot also judge Israel and pardon or, for that matter, condemn her for her offenses. Rashi comments on Exodus 23:21: “He has been sent on a specific mission and can only perform that duty.” The angel can either guard Israel in battle or not. If not, the angel would simple be recalled to the heavenly realm and Israel would be left to fend for itself with disastrous consequences. The one to judge and either pardon or condemn would be God, not the angel.

Another explanation given by Rashi for why the angel cannot pardon Israel is that angels have no conception of what it means to pardon. He comments on Exodus 23:21: “(The angel) has no experience in doing so, for he is a member of the class of beings that never sins.” Even if the angel could perform more than one task, he couldn’t possibly do something outside his realm of comprehension.

Who is the single-minded angel charged with guarding Israel? According to Nachmanides, another medieval commentator, “Our sages call him Metatron, the one who shows the way” (commentary to 23:20). Here Nachmanides ascribes to Metatron the task of guiding, not guarding, Israel through the wilderness, which, to be sure, is another plausible interpretation of the Hebrew for “to guard you” lishmorcha.” In any case, Metatron is never named in the Torah, but only in later literature. For example, in the pseudepigraphical work 3 Enoch, Metatron guides the author on a mystical tour of heaven. In the foundational work of Jewish mysticism, the Zohar, Metatron is depicted as the very guide for Israel in the wilderness that we read about in this week’s portion.

Given the unswerving, pre-programmed, other-worldly nature of Metatron and his fellow angels, we have to wonder if calling someone an angel is, indeed, a compliment. It is in the sense that people who add blessing to our lives appear to us as messengers from God. The compliment turns sour, though, when we consider that the angels of the Torah can only do one thing and that without a conscience. The Torah’s angels simply do what God tells them to do without having the capacity to discern between right and wrong. The human angels that we experience in our world, on the other hand, are often complex individuals motivated by compassion, justice, and other noble intentions, and to compare them with such limited beings at Metatron strikes me as insulting.

I am not suggesting eliminating the use of the term “angel” from our lexicon of accolades. Surely, to see any human being as an agent of the Divine is to bestow upon that person high praise. Rather, let’s just be sure to give credit where credit is due; the loving child, the generous man, and the altruistic woman deserve far more glory than even God’s heavenly agents.