Parshas Behar contains the Torah’s prohibition against cheating: “When you make a sale to your fellow or when you buy from the hand of your fellow, do not victimize one another (Al tonu ish es achiv).” [Vayikra 25:14] Rashi explains that “Al To’nu” refers to deception regarding monetary matters.
It is not a coincidence that this prohibition against cheating immediately follows the section of the Sabbatical year requirements. If there is one lesson that emerges from the parsha of Shemitah, it is that the Ribono shel Olam provides man with his livelihood needs. In the seventh year, farmers (and in Biblical times the economy was almost totally agrarian) were asked to stop working for an entire year, and they were somehow supposed to survive. How can they do that?
The answer is that the Ribono shel Olam promises that He will take care of them. The takeaway lesson of the parsha of Shmittah is that the Almighty provides our parnassa, and in the seventh year a person can in fact not work, not plant, not harvest, and yet survive – and according to the Torah he will do even more than survive!
If we believed that with all our hearts and souls, we would never be tempted to cheat. Why do we cheat? We cheat so that we can make a couple of extra dollars. However, if we fully internalized the idea that a person’s income is determined by the Almighty each Rosh HaShannah, and whatever we are destined to get will come our way and not a penny more, we would have no reason to cheat and try to deceitfully make those couple of extra dollars! This idea is sometimes very hard for people to accept in practice.
I read a very interesting story about Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, zt”l. As we have mentioned countless times, Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky exemplified and personified what it means to be an honest person. It is no coincidence that he named his sefer on Chumash Emes L’Yaakov. This is what he preached, and this is what he practiced.
One of Rav Yaakov’s sons was Rav Noson Kamenetsky. Rav Noson wanted to trace his family’s roots and went to visit the little Litvishe European town in which Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky had been the Rav. While he was there, he discovered a very interesting historical fact: Even though much of Lithuanian Jewry was wiped out during the Shoah, to a large extent, the Jews of that particular city survived the war and escaped the Nazi Holocaust.
Rav Noson Kamenetsky went to the mayor of the town and asked him if he could explain how the Jews of this town were successful in saving their lives. The mayor said, “I can tell you exactly why the Jews escaped.” He said that before the war, the fellow who eventually became the mayor was the postmaster of the town. He would have a test for the clergy members of that town – both Jews and non-Jews. The test was that when they would come in to buy postage, he would purposely give them more change than they deserved, and he would see whether they would return the money or not. That was his acid test of what type of people he was dealing with.
He did this three times with Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky. Each time he gave Rav Yaakov more money than he was entitled to in change, Rav Yaakov would always return the money. This postmaster was so impressed with Rav Yaakov, who was the head of the Jewish community, that when years later he was mayor of the town – any time he became aware of a German action which would have wiped out the Jews, he would notify the Jews and they would go hide in the forest or wherever, and that is how the Jews of the city were saved.
When Rav Noson Kamenetsky returned to America from his trip to Europe, he asked his father if he had any recollection of the post office, if he remembered the postmaster, and if he recalled these incidents. Rav Yaakov said that he did not remember the particular story about being tested, but all he remembered was that the postmaster in town did not know how to count.
The Strength of the Shomer Shmita
There is pasuk in Tehillim [103:20] “Bless Hashem, O His angels; the mighty men who do His bidding, to obey the voice of His word.” Basically, Dovid HaMelech invokes a prayer that the people who do the will of G-d should be blessed.
The Medrash comments: Who are these “mighty men” who obey the Word of the Ribono shel Olam? Rav Yitzchak states: The pasuk is speaking about those individuals who observe the laws of the Shemita. Normally a person will do a mitzvah for a day, a week, or a month. But the Sabbatical year continues for an entire twelve-month agricultural cycle, during which you cannot as much as prune your tree! This is a tremendous nisayon (test) and it is ongoing. It is not a passing test that lasts a day or a week. It lasts a year! The farmer sees his field—his entire source of income—lie fallow for a whole year and he keeps quiet! Is there a greater “mighty person” that this?
However, we must ask a question: When the Torah commands the Jewish people to keep Shemita, it says that in the year before the Shemita, they will be blessed with a bounty of a crop, and their fields will yield double their normal produce. So, let us say that the after-expense profit of a farmer is normally $100,000 per year. In the sixth year of the Shemita cycle he suddenly earns $200,000. Therefore, he is set for the next two years! What then is the great “strength” alluded to by the pasuk in Tehillim? He is getting his payment “up front”! He has his money in the bank – so where is his nisayon?
Rav Ahaon Kotler explained – someone who asks this question does not understand human nature. If a fellow in the sixth year makes $200,000, he says to himself, if I could only plant in the seventh year, imagine how much income I would have then! I am not forgoing just $100,000—perhaps I am forgoing $200,000 or more! That is the nature of human beings.
This is how life works. Say you bought Apple stock at $100 a share. Apple then goes up to $300. You don’t sell. Apple goes up to $600. You don’t sell. Why don’t you sell? Because Apple is going to go higher. Apple goes up to $700. “Ahh! You see what a Chochom I am? I did not sell!” Now Apple falls back down to $400. You see what a shoteh you are! But why didn’t you sell at the peak? It’s because you always expect to make more money and more money.
That is what this farmer is thinking. Yes, I had a banner crop in the sixth year. I could have done even better in the seventh year! To walk away from that natural aspiration and expectation qualifies one as a Giborei Koach. That takes a strong person!
Ribis Is Not Just Another Lav
Parshas Behar contains the prohibition of charging another Jew interest. The Medrash records a scary result of engaging in this prohibition: “See how great the punishment is for one who lends with interest: He will not rise up at the time of the Resurrection of the Dead.”
Ribis is a lav—a negative commandment—one of 365 such “Thou Shall Not” commandments in the Torah. This is not a lav that is punished by Kares (spiritual excision); it is not a lav that is punished by misah b’dei Shamayim (Death at the Hands of Heaven); it is not a capital offense at all. It is simply a “regular negative commandment.” I am not belittling that, but it is just a lav.
Nowhere are we told that for wearing clothes made out of wool and linen (shatnez) that we will not get up at the time of Techiyas HaMeisim. Nowhere are we told that for eating pork (chazir) we will not get up at the time of Techiyas HaMeisim. Why is Ribis so severe that the Medrash warns that for violating this prohibition, a person forfeits his chance for resurrection?
Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld once gave an explanation for this: We know that there is a mitzvah called Shiluach HaKen (the prohibition of taking a mother bird together with her chicks from their nest). A person must first send away the mother bird and only then take the eggs. The rationale behind this mitzvah, according to many commentaries, is the following: Normally, a person can never catch a bird. (When I was a little boy, they told me that if you put salt on the tail of a bird, you can catch it. I tried this experiment. In theory it might work, but it is impossible to put salt on the tail of the bird! The bird flies away!)
So, what kind of prohibition is this to not take a mother bird? Mother birds are not catchable! The answer is that in this case, it is possible to catch the mother, because the mother bird does not want to abandon her nest. She is vulnerable when sitting on top of her chicks. The Torah teaches: Do not take advantage of someone’s vulnerability, because if not for her mercy on her chicks she would fly the coop—literally and figuratively.
Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld explained that it is the same when a person comes to ask to borrow money. Generally speaking, the person needs the money badly. He will do anything to get it. “I need the money. If not, my business will collapse, the bank will take away my house, my property will be foreclosed. I need the money!” The natural response of a man with capital to such a plea might be, “Okay, I’ll lend you the money, but I want 13%” “Thirteen percent?!?” “Listen, do you want the money or don’t you?”
The Torah does not want us to take advantage of vulnerable people. When a person is down and out, the Torah frowns upon taking advantage of his desperation. The prohibition of Ribis is an expression of the Torah’s strong displeasure with such behavior. Therefore, the Torah is far stricter by the prohibition of charging interest that it is by other issurim.
Bechukosai’s Blessings Are Conditional; Kohanim’s Blessings Are Unconditional
The Rokeach, one of the earlier Chumash commentaries, makes the following observation: The words starting from Bechukosai [Vayikra 26:3] until the words “V’Olech Eschem Komemiyus” [Vayikra 26:13] contain every single letter in the Hebrew alphabet except for the letter Samech. This symbolizes, he says, that all these blessings were given on condition – “If you follow My decrees and observe My commandments and perform them….” The promised blessings will all happen – but only if you keep the Mitzvos. They are all conditional—except for the “Samech Osiyos” (the sixty letters) present in the Birkas Kohanim.
The Priestly Blessings contains exactly sixty letters, and those blessings are guaranteed regardless of our behavior, whether good, bad, or ugly! The Rokeach gives no further elaboration or explanation of this very mysterious formulation. What is the meaning of the Rokeach’s terse statement?
I saw the following explanation in the sefer Darash Mordechai: Birkas Kohanim follows the Blessing of Thanksgiving (Modim anachnu Lach) in the morning shemoneh esrei. If a person is already thanking the Almighty and is aware of our debt of gratitude to Him, that alone suffices to raise the person to a level where he deserves blessing. The Blessing that follows our expression of thanksgiving to the Almighty comes without any strings attached.
My good friend, Rav Shragi Neuberger, offered a different interpretation: He suggested that Birkas Kohanim is the legacy of Aharon HaKohen. Aharon HaKohen was the quintessential “lover of peace and pursuer of peace.” Aharon HaKohen is so precious and so dear to the Ribono shel Olam that his blessing comes with no strings attached.
I myself had a third thought on the matter: Birkas Kohanim is a very difficult Mitzvah. The Kohanim are commanded to bless the Jewish people out of love (b’Ahavah). The Kohanim need to wish each of their fellow Jews every possible good that they can imagine, no matter what their own personal lives are like. It could be that a particular Kohen does NOT have shalom (peace) in his house. It could be that the Kohen does not have parnasa (a good livelihood) in his house. But he must bless his Israelite neighbor that he should have shalom and paransa in his house. It is a blessing that is totally altruistic.
We once mentioned that following the Birkas Kohanim, the Kohanim say a brief prayer including the phrase “we have done what you have DECREED upon us.” What kind of DECREE was it to have to bless the Jewish people? The DECREE is that they need to give the full bracha with their full heart, no matter what is going on in their own lives. That is hard. But if the Kohanim are willing to do that, and they do in fact do that, then their Bracha comes with no strings attached. They give it in such a spirit of generosity and altruism that the blessing which flows from such generosity of spirit is a bracha ad bli dai – a blessing without limit or condition.
You are all welcome to ponder this Rokeach and come up with your own interpretations at your Shabbos table.
Transcribed by David Twersky; Jerusalem [email protected]
Technical Assistance by Dovid Hoffman; Baltimore, MD [email protected]
This week’s write-up is adapted from the hashkafa portion of Rabbi Yissochar Frand’s Commuter Chavrusah Series on the weekly Torah portion. A listing of the halachic portions for Parshas Behar is provided below:
- # 011 – Rationing Medical Care
- # 012 – Can Teachers Strike?
- # 054 – Life Insurance: The Torah Policy
- # 055 – Candle Lighting & Havdalah: How Early & How Late?
- # 097 – “Ribis” Problems of Interest for the Jew in a Mercantile Society
- # 098 – “Cheremei Tzibur”: A Ban on Living in Germany?
- # 145 – Kidney Donations: Endangering Oneself to Save Another
- # 192 – Making Shabbos Early
- # 282 – The Physician’s Obligation to Heal
- # 328 – Sh’mita and the Heter Mechira
- # 372 – Using Shuls As A Shortcut
- # 416 – Supporting Jewish Merchants
- # 460 – The Obligation of Checking One’s Teffilin
- # 504 – Lag B’Omer
- # 548 – Marrying for Money
- # 592 – Ribis and the Non-Jew
- # 636 – The Kedusha of the Ezras Noshim
- # 680 – Is Ribis Ever Permitted?
- # 724 – The Chazzan Who Changes His Mind
- # 768 – Dos and Don’ts of Treating a Lender
- # 812 – How Much Is That Tiffany Necklace?
- # 856 – Distractions When Performing A Mitzvah
- # 900 – Oy! My Tefillin Are Pasul
- # 945 – Overcharging: How Much Is Too Much?
- # 987 – Limud HaTorah – Must You Understand What You Are Learning?
- # 988 – Bentching – Making Sure You Eat and Enjoy
- #1031 – Sh’mitta – How Did the Farmers Survive?
- #1032 – The Child Molester – What Must We Do?
- #1076 – Cheating in Business It May Be More Asur Than You Think
- #1118 – What Are You/Aren’t You Allowed To Talk About on Shabbos?
- #1119 – Davening in a Rented Movie Theater–Is There A Problem?
- #1160 – The Mahram of Padua, The Ramo, and l’Havdil the Pope
- #1204 – The Friend Who Reneged on their Power Ball Agreement
- #1205 – The Case of the Women of Vienna and the Incredible Response of the Rabonim
- #1249 – Heter Meah Rabbonim: The Rarely Used Sanction of Polygamy
- #1292 – The Price of Fish for Shabbos Went Sky High – What Can the Community Do?
- #1293 – A Tragic Holocaust Shailah
- #1336 – The Tochacha of Parshas Bechukosai – Should It Be Avoided?
A complete catalogue can be ordered from the Yad Yechiel Institute, PO Box 511, Owings Mills MD 21117-0511. Call (410) 358-0416 or e-mail [email protected] or visit http://www.yadyechiel.org/ for further information.