I was told the story of a woman my age who decided to introduce her mother to the magic of the internet. Her first move was to show her mom the popular “Ask.com” site. To impress her she told her that it could answer any question she had.
Her mother was really skeptical until she said, “It’s true, Mom. Just think of something to ask it,” and she sat with fingers poised over the keyboard. Her mother thought, and thought and finally responded, “OK I’ll ask it a question: How is Aunt Shirley feeling?”
Tonight I ask the question, where do our principles, our ethics and values come from? Can you find them on the internet with “Ask.com” or do they still come from the same authentic ancient sources of wisdom that have informed the human mind and spirit for thousands of years?
We, in the Jewish civilization for the past 3,000 years have turned for ethical guidance to the Torah itself and all the sacred literature that flowed from studying it and wrestling with everyday ethical challenges from the beginning of time right up until today.
The fundamental religious principle that underlies all of Jewish ethics is the idea that transformed the world itself the minute the Torah entered human consciousness. Before the Torah there was one rule that everyone understood, and here was the rule: “The man with the biggest stick gets to make the rules! Period!
Then the Torah came into the world and introduced the idea that there is a God who has ethical expectations of every human being. It was an idea whose time had come and continues to resonate to this very day – that what you do matters, and what you say matters because who you are really matters.
The Torah transformed the way we look at ethics altogether. No longer was it true that just because you were the biggest, or toughest or had the biggest guns you could make whatever rules you wanted, even if they included enslavement or death to anyone you choose.
The Torah put our 10 Commandments and all the rest of the traditional 613 Mitzvot into the mouth of God to teach the opposite – namely that “You shall not murder” applies to everyone, even if you have the biggest stick, even if you are the king, even if you are the most powerful man on earth. God still says no one should murder, not even you.
Jewish ethics are spiritual ethics – based on the idea that there is a constant awareness of God that infuses all thought and actions. The Torah teaches:
- “You shall not glean your vineyard nor gather every grape, but shall leave them for the poor. I am Adonai your God.”
- Justice, justice shall you pursue – I am Adonai your God.”
- “You shall do no unrighteousness in judgment in measures, in weight and in liquid measure. Just weights, just balances, just measures shall you have. I am Adonai your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt. “ In fact, the Talmud teaches that the God who could distinguish between the seed of a firstborn and others, the most private knowledge imaginable, will surely know and punish he who soaks his weights or falsifies his measures in secret in order to defraud.Talmud Bavli, Baba Metzia 61B
- “You shall not oppress the stranger…I am Adonai your God.”
- “And I will draw close to you to judge you and I will be a swift witness against…the swearers to falsehood and against those that oppress the worker through delay of his wages, the widow, the orphan and pervert the rights of the stranger and so fear not Me.” Malachi 3:5
- II. YETZER TOV AND YETZER RA
- The Rabbis say that the most powerful ethical challenge we have is the struggle with our Yetzer Hara – our evil inclination and lust for power, money and wealth.
- This is a lust that is never satisfied no matter how much it is fed, a desire never completely fulfilled: “The eye is never filled with seeing nor the ear with hearing…” Ecclesiastes. Midrash Kohelet –
- Torah surrounded the power of economic lust with more mitzvot (over 100) than it did (for example) Kosher food with only 28, lashon hara one of the most important and difficult Mitzvot to keep has only 11 Mitzvot related to it.
- Another principle of Jewish ethics is based on the understanding that in reality our needs are relatively few, but our wants are unlimited.
a. The immoral effect of blurring distinction between “needs and wants” is compounded by the ease with which we rationalize our unethical actions. The sages teach “Most people are guilty of dishonesty” (Why did they make this claim?)
b. Shmuel Luzzato (18th cent moralist) taught “In their business dealings most people get a taste for stealing, whenever they permit themselves to make an unfair profit at the expense of others, and don’t see them as theft. So it is not merely obvious and explicit theft that concerns us, but any unethical transfer of wealth that may occur in everyday economic activity.”
- What makes it easy to be unethical in business?
a. Depersonalized economic institutions and corporations.
b. “Everyone’s doing it” mentality – Rav Huna said, “When a person sins once and then repeats the sin, it becomes permitted to him.” Talmud Kiddushin 40a
c. Employee pilfering and private use of employers’ facilities and materials are viewed so casually as a “perk” of the job and not as a crime.
d. The same rationalization leads to excessive insurance claims, or using frequent flyer miles earned through work for private use.
What is needed is a lifestyle of “enough.
I first leaned Torah from my mother. She used to tell me every week when the woman came to clean our house that the reason she always left her money on the dresser for her to take whenever she finished her work, was because the Torah taught:
“Don’t keep the wages of a hired servant with you over night.” Lev. 19:13 (“And the people of Sodom were exceedingly evil and sinful before God (Gen. 13:13) Sinful refers to their monetary sins, since in Deuteronomy it says “It will be a sin for you” referring to one who delays payment of an oath or withholds the wages of a worker.” Talmud Sanhedrin 109b
There is a famous story in the Talmud that captures the ideal of how business ethics ought to work: “Rabbi Safra was standing in prayer when a buyer approached him to purchase his goods. When the buyer received no reaction to his original offer, he raised the price. Taking the rabbis silence as rejection, he raised the price again and as the praying continued so did the bidding until the Rabbi finished his prayers. When he finally turned to the buyer he immediately counted out the coins of his last offer and was shocked when Rabbi Safran returned to him the difference between that and his first offer.” (Why did Rabbi Safran do that?) Talmud Makot 24b
Theft is another example of how the Torah embraces the importance of ethics in business.
1. “You shall not steal nor deal falsely nor lie one to another” Leviticus 19:11
i. “If one steals even the smallest amount from his neighbor, it is as though he takes his soul from him.” Talmud Bava Kama 119a) – includes illegally using employers telephone, car, postage stamps, paper, …
ii. It even teaches, “Do not enter the property of your fellow to take what is legally yours without permission, so that you will not look like a thief.” Talmud Bava Kamma 27b
iii. “One is not allowed to buy goods from one in a position to steal or you are assisting the other in his stealing. “It is not the mouse that steals but the hole.” (Talmud, Gittin 45a) Rambam calls this aiding another to do something forbidden (if nobody would buy the goods, the thief would not steal them). This is a case of lifnei iver – a stumbling block in the path of the blind.
iv. Commenting on the verse “you shall not steal” Menachen Mendel of Kotsk said, “Not only is it forbidden to steal from others, it is forbidden to steal your own consciousness. One should not deceive oneself.”
2. HILLUL HASHEM – DESECRATION OF GOD’S NAME
a. “Robbery from a non-Jew is more serious than robbery from a Jew because of the desecration of God’s name.” Bava Kamma 10:15
b. “Just as you have to act in good faith with Jews so too must you act in good faith with non-Jews. And if a non-Jew makes a mistake (in your favor and you do not put him right), be careful. He might find out afterward and then the Name of Heaven will be desecrated by your actions.” Sefer Chasadim
c. First question God will ask after we die? “Did you conduct your financial affairs in good faith?” be’emunah Talmud Shabbat 31a