One day at kindergarten a Teacher said to the class of 5-year-olds, “I’ll give £20 to the child who can tell me who was the most famous person who ever lived.”

 A little Irish boy put his hand up and said, “It was St. Patrick.” The Teacher said, “Sorry Seamus, that’s not correct.”

 Then a little Scottish boy put his hand up and said, “It was St. Andrew.” The Teacher replied, “I’m sorry, Hamish, that’s not right either.”

 Finally, a little Jewish boy raised his hand and said, “It was Jesus.” The teacher said, “That’s absolutely right, Chaim. Come up here and I’ll give you the £20.” As the Teacher was giving Chaim his money, she said, “You know, Chaim, since you’re Jewish, I was very surprised you said, ‘Jesus.” Chaim replied, “Yeah. In my heart, I knew it was Moshe, but business is business…”

All too often, the term “business is business” is used to justify unethical actions and behaviours. The cardinal principle in business is to maximise profit – and an in the process, feelings, ethics and morality are sometimes negated.

This week’s parshah picks up on precisely this conflict. Behar deals extensively with the laws relating to how Jews are to conduct themselves in business. We learn this out through the laws relating to shmitta[1],  yovel[2], ribbis[3], and ona’ah[4]. We refer to a few extracts below:

Speak to the children of Israel and you shall say to them: When you come to the land that I am giving you, the land shall rest a Sabbath to the Lord.                      

דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם כִּי תָבֹאוּ אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי נֹתֵן לָכֶם וְשָׁבְתָה הָאָרֶץ

 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.

 וְכִי תִמְכְּרוּ מִמְכָּר לַעֲמִיתֶךָ אוֹ קָנֹה מִיַּד עֲמִיתֶךָ אַל תּוֹנוּ אִישׁ אֶת אָחִיו:

You shall not take from him interest or increase, and you shall fear your God, and let your brother live with you.

אַל תִּקַּח מֵאִתּוֹ נֶשֶׁךְ וְתַרְבִּית וְיָרֵאתָ מֵאֱלֹהֶיךָ וְחֵי אָחִיךָ עִמָּךְ:

Much ink has been spilt on these topics, and it is beyond the scope of this article to explore them in depth. However, we can focus here on the final pasuk (verse) regarding the laws of taking interest from a fellow Jew. The Chasam Sofer notes that from this pasuk we derive a source for the famous statement from chazal (the Torah Sages), that a Jew who lends money with interest will not merit to be resurrected in the times of the Moshiach[5]. In order to appreciate the connection between the two statements, we need to comprehend the correlation between אַחְדוּת (unity) and תְּחִיַּת הַמֵּתִים (resurrection of the dead).

The underlying premise of the resurrection is that all Jews, regardless of whether they are alive or deceased, are connected to each other as well as to Hashem. Even those who are no longer alive are very much a part of klal yisrael. A withering branch, which has for the time being ceased to produce fruit, may still be connected to the rest of the tree. So too, the deceased who are no longer with us, are still an integral part of the Jewish people, which itself is inseparably linked to Hashem – and they will eventually come back to life.

The usurer, who insists upon charging interest to another Jew, ignores the Torah’s plea that we should treat each other as brothers – who would not charge each other a fee for borrowing money. In doing so, such a person is denying the inherent unity between all Jews and Hashem. As a result of this destructive attitude, he is cut off from the Jewish people. Unlike all the other branches on the tree, he has cut himself from the root. He has cut himself from Hashem and from his brethren, and as such will be unable to benefit from resurrection.  The Torah itself warns the usurer of the grave consequences of his behaviour by pleading with him – immediately after the instruction regarding interest, the Torah warns, “you shall fear Hashem.” Our actions have direct consequences.

After all, we are all part of the same family, so why demand interest? May we only have each other’s best interests in our heart, and not their interest in our pockets.

Good Shabbos!

The Working Jew.

[1] The seventh year of the seven-year agricultural cycle where the land is left to lie fallow and all agricultural activity ceases.

[2] The Jubilee year, which takes place following seven cycles of shmita, has a special impact on the ownership and management of land in the Land of Israel. There are also implications for property rights more generally: slaves and prisoners would be freed, debts would be forgiven, and the mercy of Hashem would be particularly manifest.

[3] The Torah strictly forbids the collection or payment of interest on a loan granted from one Jew to another.

[4] The laws relating to monetary deception, in particular unfair pricing. The word is used in modern Hebrew to describe fraud or embezzlement.

[5] Shemos Rabbah, 31:6