In this week’s reading we are directed not to cheat in business. The Torah says explicitly “one should not overcharge his brethren” (Leviticus 25:14).
Being that the land of Israel was divided among tribes and again among the families making up the tribes, the intention is that each family has an ancestral right to the land it was given. In most cases even when land is sold, it is really a form of leasing, and the land goes back to its ancestral owner in the year known as Yoveil (Jubilee), which occurs every fifty years. The land is given a fair market value per year, and the buyer purchases the land on that basis. It is in this context that we are instructed not to overcharge.
In the Talmud (Tractate Tamid 28.a), there is a discussion as to which is a good general approach in life. One of the opinions is that one should embrace faith to an extreme. Rashi, the great medieval commentator, explains this statement as follows. One should do business faithfully, and not cheat people.
Rabbi Shalom Noach Brezovsky, the Slonimer Rebbe, points out that this explanation is difficult to understand. Doing business faithfully and not cheating is not one of several approaches, it is a directive explicit in the Torah. It also seems redundant to say “do business faithfully” and also “don’t cheat people.” Not cheating is included in doing business faithfully.
The Slonimer Rebbe explains this in the following way. There are some character traits which are appropriate at times and inappropriate at other times. Jealousy, for instance, is appropriate if it motivates one to try harder and accomplish more good. It is inappropriate if it motivates someone to hatred and bitterness. Many traits have this in common. The two exceptions are the traits of truth and faith. Truth and faith are always appropriate in every situation.
The following is an example of truth. Rav Safra was reciting K’rias Sh’ma, part of the daily liturgy. Rav Safra was unable to interrupt his recitation when someone came to him and offered him a sum of money for an item he was selling. The lack of response was taken as a refusal of the offer, and the purchaser offered more. This repeated itself several times until Rav Safra was finished, and then Rav Safra told the man that he would accept his original offer, as he had accepted that price but could not say so before he had offered more. This can be what Rashi meant when he said not to cheat people. Even when he would be permitted by the Torah to charge a particular sum, but it involved even a slight dishonesty, such as the case with Rav Safra, one should still not “cheat”. One must strive for the most extreme degree of truth.
Regarding faith the Slonimer Rebbe quotes a work called the Be’er Moshe. Sometimes a person might think that if he does a dishonest act in business he stands to gain a great profit. In reality it is determined by G-d what a person will make each year. Someone who embraces that knowledge seriously knows that “all of the kings of the east and the west could not add or subtract one iota from that which was decreed for this person to receive.” In that context cheating and dishonesty has no place. One can never ultimately obtain more than what is coming to him. This is the meaning of doing business faithfully.
The Slonimer Rebbe quotes one of his predecessors that the businessmen of his time were always in a state of fear that their buyers would not be repeat customers and they would lose business to their competition. About that the previous Rebbe said that it was already decreed in heaven when the buyers left their villages which merchant they would go to, and how much he would spend, and that the merchants really had nothing to be worrying about. This is the approach of faith, and with this approach honest business practices are the only way of going about things.
Accordingly, doing business faithfully, and not cheating people are not just laws we must follow; they are an approach to life based on a perspective which embraces honesty with oneself and trust in The One Above. This is the kind of people the Torah wants us to be.