March 20, 2009

By Rabbi Robert H. Loewy

 

A man went to his ATM the other day and the message popped up, “insufficient funds.” He wondered out loud. “Does that mean me or the bank?”

We had a program here the other night with an economist and a stock broker. They were asked, “what is the best way in this economy to maintain a small fortune?” Both responded, “start with a large one.”

The financial crisis surrounds us, but it’s Shabbat a time for rest, an opportunity to put the worries of the world behind us or at least in a different perspective, a Jewish context.

Let’s begin by speaking of Moses. Most often he is “Moshe Rabbeinu,” Moses our Rabbi or teacher. We know him as “lawgiver,” or the “shepherd,” who lovingly led the Israelites through the wilderness. We think of him as the reluctant prophet, who assumed leadership with great hesitation.

Yet it is in this week’s Torah portion that we encounter a different role for Moses. The Tabernacle, which required a capital campaign to gather the necessary items for construction is now complete. Moses then provides a detailed accounting of everything that was utilized: the gold, silver, yarns and resources. It is clear that he seeks absolute monetary transparency. To this episode of Torah the midrash comments:

“Our sages taught, in communal finances one should never give the responsibility to fewer than two or even three persons- yet Moses was given sole charge of all contributions. (Now you know the origin of two signatures on non-profit checks.) But as soon as the Tabernacle was finished, Moses, out of his own choice, had an audit made.”

A further commentator adds:

“There was no requirement for an accounting, but it was done at Moses’ insistence. Moses demanded it because we learn in Num. 32:22, ‘You shall be guiltless before the Lord and before Israel,’ that no one should think that he had benefitted from the money collected for the Sanctuary.” (Or-ha-hayim)

Thus, we now encounter with a different title, Moses the first of the Jewish CFOs. As we would hope, his behavior in the financial realm is exemplary, reflecting the highest of ethics. Contrary to the stereotypes and occasional exceptions to the rule, like Bernard Madoff, we can be proud of the many Jewish men and women who conduct themselves according to the clear ethical standards of financial integrity. For every scoundrel like Madoff, we have many more people like Leonard Abess, the man recently cited by President Obama, who sold City National Bank of Florida and gave $60 million in bonuses to 399 employees and 72 former employees.

It is not a coincidence that as our country confronts the greatest financial crisis in decades, a time when we need a Moses to lead us to the Promised Land of security, that the brain trust called upon to tackle the challenge disproportionately consists of Jews. There is good news and bad news in this. For those who think Jews have extraordinary financial acumen, and contribute to the betterment of our society, have we got a team for you? The bad news is that when I googled, “Jews on Obama’s Financial Recovery Team,” the first article with the information needed was titled:

Obama’s ‘Jewish Inspired’ Stimulus Will Not Work

The blog goes on to say: “OBAMA’S STIMULUS PLAN IS A SCHEME hatched by Jewish financial insiders. Representing the interests of Wall Street’s Jewish financial institutions, a group of Zionist Jews, (loyal to Jewish interests before those of America), have been appointed by Obama as his economic advisors:  (and then we see the list of our Jewish all-star team)

Timothy Geithner: Treasury Secretary – Jewish.

Steven Rattner: Treasury Advisor For Auto Sector – Jewish.

Larry Summers: Economic Advisor to the President – Jewish.

Robert Rubin: Economic Advisor to the President – Jewish.

Alan Blinder: Economic Advisor to the President – Jewish.

Jason Furman: Director Of Economic Policy – Jewish.

Peter Orszag: Head of Budget – Jewish.

Jon Leibowitz: Chairman Of Federal Trade Commission – Jewish.

 

While they were at it, they could have included Benjamin Shlomo Bernanke as Head of the Federal Reserve, Rahm Emanuel, as President Obama’s Chief of Staff and numerous others.

I think we all hope and pray that these individuals know what they are doing. To be honest I have no idea how Jewishly learned or committed some of these people are. I can only hope that they might be guided by basic principles that have become part of Jewish tradition over the centuries. They are not taught at Harvard and Yale, but hopefully have found their way into their Jewish subconscious. These are the real Jewish values, not the bogus blabbering  of anti-Semites.

Let me share a number of them with you this evening. We can start with a few fundamental Jewish teachings. In Ex. 15:26, we learn a preamble to proper living, that being to “heed the Lord your God diligently and do what is upright in God’s sight, giving ear to God’s commandments and keeping all of God’s laws.” To this Biblical text, midrash adds, “When people act in business with integrity and their fellow human beings are pleased with them, it is accounted to them as if they had fulfilled the whole Torah.” (Mekhilta Va-yassa 1) In Judaism, how one leads his/her daily life, including one’s work activities, is not separate from religious life.

Our Talmud is even stronger, stating: “When a person is brought before the Heavenly Court, they first ask him, ‘Were you honest in your business dealings?’.” (Talmud Shabbat 33b) We can be the most pious persons in synagogue, but if we do not live our days with integrity, honesty and respect for others in the marketplace, then all is for naught. Early on the Prophets decried those who brought sacrifices, but oppressed their workers.

The Biblical and Rabbinic concept of “Ona’ah”- wronging or oppressing others is often connected with the business world. Torah teaches that if you buy or sell something from your neighbor, you shall not wrong that person and then the injunction that you should not wrong another is repeated. There is recognition that a market economy involves give and take, profit and loss. There is acceptance that there will always be rich and poor, haves and have nots. The premise of our teaching is that there must be a degree of fairness and even compassion in the business realm. Employers and employees need protection and fair treatment. From this general statement has come a variety of related, more specific ideas.

For starters, there is a concern about “over-charging.” Whether involving a housing market or credit cards, the price of groceries or clothing, our rabbinic tradition teaches that all are entitled to fair treatment. From the rabbinic times, they established a floor of 1/6. You should not charge more than 1/6 of the actual value of a product or purchase it at less than 1/6 of the actual value. This refers to necessities, not luxuries. We can debate and analyze the details, but the bottom line is that Jewish tradition attempts to regulate fairness in the marketplace. Our government leaders must do the same.

It also includes protection against abuse. The category of “Genevat Da’at,” literally, “stealing of knowledge,” addresses the concept of fraud. Torah teaches that we do not put stumbling blocks before the blind, which is to say, we should not be tricking or deceiving others in commercial transactions. This includes the victims of Madoff’s crimes, who blindly trusted him. Talmud warned against those who might water down wine, but it also can be applied to buying those fresh luscious strawberries in a container visible from the top and the rotten ones underneath.

Contrary to the stereotype, Jewish tradition discusses how all of these standards apply to our dealings with both Jews and non-Jews. While our reaction to a Jew cheating a fellow Jew is often, “How could he do this to his own family, his own people?”, Jewish tradition actually comes down harder when fraud is perpetrated against non-Jews. For in that instance, not only has one gone against Jewish values, but it also is considered “chilul hashem.” You are profaning God’s name, giving God’s people a bad reputation. We are indeed linked to one another, for good or for ill.

We can study these laws and precepts in detail and if interested, we will do so a little on Wednesday night. But perhaps indicative of the real Jewish attitude towards the market is the following story:

Once, Rabbi Shimon ben Shetakh bought a donkey from an Arab. When his disciples went to claim it, they found a precious jewel hanging around its neck.

They came to Shimon ben Shetakh and said, “Master, now you no longer need to work, for God’s blessing brings you wealth.”

“How is this so?” he asked.

“We found this precious jewel on the donkey you just bought.”

“Did the Arab know about this?”

“No,” they answered.

“Then return it to him at once. I bought a donkey, not a jewel.”

When they returned the jewel to the Arab, he exclaimed, “Blessed is the God of Shimon ben Shetakh!”

Friends, we are called upon not just to study Torah, the basis of our Jewish values, but to live by Torah, not just in synagogue, but in all aspects of our lives, when we lie down and when we rise up, when we are in our homes or out in the world. And as Moses understood, this especially includes how we lead the economic aspect of our lives. May we and our kinsmen walk in his footsteps.

AMEN