Parshat Behar (Leviticus 25:1-26:2)
If someone were to ask me what the most “socially conscious” Torah portion is, I wouldn’t hesitate for a moment with the response. If there is one part of the Torah that deals methodically and intensively with social issues, it is Parshat Behar.
The portion reviews the laws of Shmittah (Sabbatical Year), when all field crops and fruits are left fallow, available to all. It also details the laws of the Yovel (Jubilee Year), in which lands are restored to their original owners and slaves return home after many years of hard work that kept them from their families. The text addresses times of hardship that people are likely to face, and explains how we are to cope with them.
Later in the portion, the Torah commands us to conduct business fairly:
And when you make a sale to your fellow Jew or make a purchase from the hand of your fellow Jew, you shall not wrong one another (“al tonu ish et achiv”). (Vayikra / Leviticus 25:14)
The Torah repeats this commandment twice in the same chapter, in verses 14 and 17 (“v’lo tonu ish et amito”), leading our sages to attach two different meanings to the Hebrew word hona’ah. The simple denotation of the prohibition of hona’ah is that we are to refrain from being fraudulent when conducting business. We may not sell damaged goods, or pass off used or damaged goods as new ones.
However, our sages added one more meaning to this commandment – that we are not allowed to wrong one another, and they provided several examples to ensure that we fully understand them: if a person asks us where a particular product can be bought, we are prohibited from misleading him and sending him to the wrong place. We are also not allowed to feign interest in a product, creating the pretense that we were planning to buy it (this is because of the disappointment caused to the seller (Tractate Bava Metzia 48b).
The prohibition of wronging others is one of the more challenging prohibitions in the Torah. It is easy to identify with the idea that murder, rape or theft are despicable acts that have no place in civil society, but it is much harder to internalize that wronging others in apparently minor ways can destroy the fabric of society to a similar extent.
It is rare for people to resort to a life of violent crime. Most people are not affected by such behavior. Our quality of life is much more affected by those small pangs of sorrow that we cause to our neighbors or friends, be they close or distant. This can happen anywhere and anytime: when we curse other drivers as we seek a parking spot in a packed parking lot, when we skip others in line at the supermarket, or when teenagers make noise late at night in the middle of a quiet and calm neighborhood.
The very Torah portion in which the Holy One Blessed Be He attempts to educate us about the fundamentals of a proper social order is where He also reminds us that before we embark on our quest to heal the world – or to attack tycoons, employment agencies, those who exploit workers and others – we ought to look for things that need fixing in our own backyard, such as how we treat our spouses, our children, and our neighbors.
All of Israeli society feels sick to its stomach when it hears of brutal murders, like the case of the fatal stabbing of a man who had merely asked a noisy group of people to be a bit quieter, so that his daughter could fall asleep. We are understandably horrified when we hear of meaningless killing, but it doesn’t take us too long to disregard the backdrop – the noise itself, something that prevented neighbors from sleeping. We have assumed that making noise is acceptable, even if it prevents others from sleeping. We have grown used to the fact that this happens, and when it does, we apathetically mutter: “Well, that’s how teenagers are today, and there’s nothing that can be done about it!”.
The great lesson that Hillel taught a non-Jew who wanted to convert was “do not do to your fellow man what you wouldn’t want done to yourself” (Tractate Shabbat 31a). The rest of the Torah is comprised of interpretations of this principle and methods of implementing it.
Our children are no worse than us. They can and want to receive the messages we have to convey, as long as we convey them clearly and calmly, and as long as we practice what we preach. So let us eliminate fraud in any form, and let us banish deceit and sorrow.
[Translated from the Hebrew by Ilan Yavor]
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