Sunday, May 9, 2010

Personal and Financial Hurt

When the Torah expresses the prohibition to not hurt other people financially, the verse begins with the statement, "When you make a sale to your fellow...do not aggrieve one another" (Leviticus 25:14). In addition to the plain meaning that it is forbidden to cheat anyone in business, the opening words imply that when we do business, we should try to be a patron of a fellow Jew. This is not a form of ethnocentrism - it's just more practical to help those closest to us first. The greatest form of charity is not fulfilled by simply giving money to someone struggling financially, but rather by enabling them to make an honorable living (i.e. giving them business). As the famous Chinese proverb goes, "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." Thus, if you need to shop for groceries and have the choice of either going to a supermarket or a local store owned by a member of your community, go to the latter. Even if you have to pay a little more, it will be considered a charitable act by God.

A few verses after prohibiting financial hurt against others, there is an apparent redundancy when the Torah mentions, "Each of you shall not aggrieve" (Leviticus 25:17). A similar phrase is used with regard to business conduct, but this prohibition refers to not verbally hurting others in our personal relationships. More specifically, this is a reference to avoiding lashon hara (evil speech), which includes gossip and slander. It is forbidden to remind people of troubling times in their past (especially when they have done their best to overcome those obstacles) or to give people bad advice. Although an individual might think that they can get away with committing one of the above infractions and hide their malicious intentions, the verse continues with "and you shall fear your God." Human beings might have the ability to judge behavior, but God has the power to judge a person's motives.

Both of these ethical precepts seem equally significant in our day-to-day lives. The Sages teach, however, that as bad as it is to hurt someone financially, it is even worse to hurt someone personally. While money can be repaid, the embarrassment experienced by someone who has been hurt is much more difficult to undo. This is also the case from another perspective. While financial success can easily come and go, the acts of kindness we do for others will always remain. These days, since virtually everyone around the world has been affected by the failing economy, it provides us with a great opportunity to realize what is most important in life. Of course, it's only natural for "making a good living" to be high on our list of priorities, but it should pale in comparison to the importance we place upon doing good deeds for others:

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