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The Challenge of Wealth

Parshas Beshalach

By Dr. Meir Tamari

At one stage I thought that there was only one cause of business immorality and that was greed. There the solution is the concept of the economics of enough. Without such a concept, irrespective of how we define it, there cannot exist any business morality. We have discussed elsewhere, how in the eternal search for more and the belief that more is better than less, eventually the power of greed must break down our protective walls. However, a colleague showed me that uncertainty was also a source for immorality. Over the years I have learnt that, indeed, uncertainty is the major determining factor in shaping our attitudes to ethical business behavior, so that the only protection is the spiritual and religious parameters regarding uncertainty.

There are many examples throughout the Torah of religious answers to economic uncertainty but the most prominent and most unambiguous one is the story of the Manna in our parshah.

The Manna is not an isolated incident but comes between two others that relate to Israel’s cries for water. Taken all together, they reflect Torah’s answers to the uncertainty in our economic and business affairs. "And they came to Marah and they could not drink of the water because it was bitter and the people complained to Moses, "What shall we drink and there He placed before them chukim and mishpatim" (Exodus 15:23-25). The Talmud (Sanhedrin, 56b) teaches that at Marah, Israel was given Shabbat[chukim] and the social laws [mishpatim]. Shabbat came to teach that just as G-d had provided for them by sweetening the water, so too, even though the Shabbat disrupted the economic activity of the weekdays, G-d would provide in the weekdays to come. This message is the crux of the Sabbatical Year, Shmittah, where G-d would provide despite the fact that no productive agricultural work was permitted during that year. Mishpatim assure us that even if we scrupulously keep the social laws regarding the earning and spending of our money, we need not have any fears of not having enough.

Our ancestors were brought to the desert where indeed, only He can provide, in order to be taught a lesson in faith that they will be able to apply, even in the midst of plenty and constant competition. We should remember that they left Egypt with flocks and herds, so the y could have slaughtered these and would not suffer hunger. Their complaints, (16:3) therefore, were made on a potentially full stomach (Rashi, Yoma, 75a). It wasn’t immediate scarcity that bothered them but only the uncertainty that flowed from the use of their capital to live on now; they wanted the security of having an alternative source of income that would leave their wealth intact. Later at Refidim (17:3) they did not say 'We have no water’, rather, ‘Where will we get water’. They had water in their vessels. What was bothering them was the fear that when they used it, they had no visible or assured source of water for the future. This made them dependent on rationing and ultimately on G-d. (HaEmek Davar).

They had clearly witnessed G-d’s power and redemption in the miracles in Egypt and at the Red Sea, and now saw the miracle of the Manna from Heaven, just as Moshe had foretold. Nevertheless, because of uncertainty, they could not obey Moshe. So they gathered more than they needed, just in case. On Shabbat they went out to gather, even though Moshe had told them that there would not be any. We see our ancestors as lacking in faith, greedy or stupid when we read of how they could not obey Moshe, yet we do exactly the same.

Here, it should be noted that the text (Exodus, 16:1) tells us that the entire people of Israel complained about the lack of food. This is not restricted to just some disgruntled group or a marginal sector. Rather, everybody shares in the fear that they will not have sufficient to protect themselves against the future. Who knows what will happen to the economy, who knows what will happen to their wealth and who knows what demands will be placed on them due to illness, old age or even acts of nature or war? So everybody has this great need to protect themselves and their families against the uncertainties of the future. If there was no uncertainty then everybody could be satisfied and moral. Therefore, in our perception of life, we try to seize as large a piece of the economic cake as possible; devoting all our energies to this and using the most unscrupulous and aggressive measures in order to achieve it. Our fears convince us that this is always necessary so we witness people who have equities so great, that neither they nor their children nor their descendants can ever use them, garnering more to the exclusion of any other activity and often with the most unethical actions; white collar crime is the monopoly of the rich. In order to guard against this, Israel is told that they can be confident that G-d will provide for them.

"One who has enough for one day, yet says, ‘what will I have for tomorrow’, is lacking in faith" ( Rabbi Eliezer Ha Modai in Shmot Rabbah, 42). When Chazal tell us that our commerce should be ‘in faith- bemunah’, this does not mean that it should be conducted honestly, since for this we have other halakhot. It means in the faith that only G-d is able to support our needs and that He does so. (Arukh HaShulchan, Orech Chayim, Section156). "One who says Ashrei, [as we do three times daily] but does not say, ‘He opens His hands and satisfies all the living’, with conviction, does not fulfill their obligation".

One should not imagine that what is suggested in Judaism is a fatalistic, naive blind trust in supernatural forces or an anti-commercial philosophy. There is necessity for human endeavor, yet this needs to be carried out within a framework of faith that G-d is the ultimate source of wealth and His mercy satisfies the world.

The Manna was not brought to them. Rather each day they had to go out and collect their own needs. The text differentiates between two different types of savings; one permissible and the other frowned upon. On Friday they were told henichu, to leave aside from what they had gathered on that day for their use on Shabbat. This akin to saving or investment whereby one does not squander but rather carefully sets of against reasonable risk. This is what the farmer does with the seed for the next crop. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein ruled that insurance is not an indicator of the lack of believe objected to above (Iggrot Moshe,Orekh Chaim, Vol.2 Section 111). However, the text also talks about those who ‘hoteru’- left over; this is akin to the word for a bowstring that is pulled taut beyond its norm. This is the forbidden act that flows from a lack of belief that G-d will provide also tomorrow.

Above all, the Manna was given to them only in the desert where they lived an abnormal existence and had all their needs given to them through open miracles. Their destiny was to cross the Jordan and there develop a society where human endeavor and wisdom would be used to satisfy needs through natural measures yet people would have faith in G-d ultimate provider and act accordingly.

Ovadiah of Sforno presents a serious spiritual perspective in his commentary on the Mannah. This is particularly relevant to us who live in a world that knows more wealth than any other in world history. He points out that the Manna freed Israel from the slavery of providing a living, since this was guaranteed by G-d, and thereby released them from the race to continuously gain a greater share of the market. Such freedom means leisure to devote oneself to moral and spiritual perfection. His question is whether they or we have this ability.


Copyright © 2002 by Rabbi Meir Tamari and Project Genesis, Inc.

Dr. Tamari is a renowned economist, Jewish scholar, and founder of the Center For Business Ethics (www.besr.org) in Jerusalem.


 






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