The Real Bottom Line
Based on an article in Parasha U’Pishra by Rabbi Moshe Grylak
By Braha Bender
“Money makes money. But what makes money make money?,” asked novelist Henry Miller. The capitalists have an answer: you do!
Many people make money make money by taking advantage of other people’s financial situation at every opportunity that they can. Use ‘em! Abuse ‘em! Tear apart a sinking ship for its parts and sell ‘em to the highest bidder. That’s business. And in the western world today, that’s money.
Allow our definition of capitalism to be a little bit slippery here. After all, historians, economic sociologists, economists, anthropologists and philosophers have debated over how to define capitalism since it developed as a system in 16th century Europe. Granted, capitalism has many fine selling points like the benefits of competition, cooperation, and independent initiative. We’re all behind that. But Parashas Behar asks us to take a small journey away from the hard-line capitalist mindset. Imagine this:
It is the biblical era. The Jewish People all live in the land of Israel. For the most part, they work as farmers on estates apportioned to them by the Almighty following the conquest of the land by Yehoshua (Joshua). Every tribe received a portion of the land, and every family in the tribe received an estate within that portion.
Hard times have come to the Schwartz family. Money is tight, and it looks like Mr. Schwartz is going to have to sell the farm. But wait! In the yovel year, the Jubilee cycle that takes place every fifty years, every estate in the land of Israel returns to its original owners. Either Mr. Schwartz or his kids will eventually get the farm back.
This leaves the capitalists scratching their heads. “Funny way to do business...but okay, it’s a long-term lease, we understand,” they say. “Let’s get on with it.”
But things get worse for the capitalists:
Mr. Schwartz sells the farm, but after a two-year period, he is allowed to buy it back. The buyer is obligated by Torah law to return the land to Mr. Schwartz or his close relative for a sum of what the lease would have been worth from that time until the next yovel.
That means that if Mr. Schwartz gets out of his financial rut, or has a rich uncle, he can buy the farm back no matter how much his original buyer wants to keep it. So much for free commerce.
“Well how can anyone do business that way?!” The capitalists are up in arms, but unfortunately their situation only worsens:
Selling the farm doesn’t help the Schwartz’. The family financial situation is getting worse by the month. Not only don’t they have money to buy the farm back, or any rich uncle, but they don’t even have money to put food on the table. Mr. Schwartz decides to go to a neighbour for a loan.
Kkkk-ching! The capitalists are getting excited. Dollar signs light up in their eyes. Money makes money – “Interest up the nose! This ship is going down and we will be floating on the remains, ha-ha!,” they yodel.
But not so fast, capitalists. Bad news for you (good news for the Schwartz family): The Torah doesn’t permit charging another Jew interest. You’re legally obligated to loan him money if you can, while not charging him a dime. (I can see the capitalists’ faces drooping.)
But wait, the capitalists are bucking up! Smiling again! (What a bunch of sharks.) “We’ll get him when he sells himself into slavery,” they say with renewed enthusiasm. “Cheap labour!”
Ah, I see our capitalists know their biblical social protocol. Slavery at that time in history was common. If Mr. Schwartz still could not redeem his financial situation, debts were piling up, and the bills were a-comin’, Mr. Schwartz had the legal option of selling himself into slavery. (I see those capitalist smiles again. Their eyes are gleaming. Even just the word makes them smile.)
I’m sorry, capitalists. Jewish slavery doesn’t really mean cheap hard labour. It means dignified, reasonable employment. Jewish slave-owners were legally obligated to provide their “slaves” with every benefit that they themselves enjoyed, from fine food and drink to clean linens and comfortable accommodations. And if the master only had one pillow to sleep on at night, guess who got it? Not the master but the “slave”.
“Well this is absolutely absurd, how do you expect money to make money to make money this way!?” Careful, capitalists, you’re spluttering. (Say it, don’t spray it.)
The common ground in all of the verses commanding these various acts of compassion is that they command you to be sensitive in these ways to “your brother”:
“If your brother becomes impoverished and sells part of his ancestral heritage...” (VaYikra-Leviticus 25:25)
“If your brother becomes impoverished and his means falter...you shall strengthen him... Do not take from him interest and increase...” (ibid 35-36)
“If your brother becomes impoverished with you and is sold to you; you shall not work him with slave labour. Like a...resident shall he be with you.” (ibid 39-40)
Generally capitalism may be terrific, but when it comes to developing human compassion, it isn’t really the best place to go. Torah guides us gently into a different set of priorities than the me-me-me of most money consciousness. Instead of me-me-me, Torah asks us to think in terms of us. Other Jews are not strangers; they are our brothers. How far would you go to help your brother?
We share one blood. We share one history. We share one Father. “For they are My servants, whom I have taken out of the land of Egypt... You shall not subjugate him through hard labour – you shall fear your God.” (ibid 42-43)
Money makes money, but there is more to life than money. Torah keeps our priorities straight. Even when it comes to the bottom line.