Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, May 12, 2018
Rabbi Michael Friedland
Amos was a prophet in the kingdom of Israel in the 8th century. He was first of the literary prophets in our canon, that is the prophets whose book is named for him and his orations. Amos railed against the moral and economic injustices that he saw all around him and specifically in the Northern Israelite kingdom. In Chapter 9 of the Book of Amos, he envisions God standing over the sacred altar and demanding that it be torn down: I saw my LORD standing by the altar, and He said: Strike the top of structure so that the threshold quakes, U’v’tza’am b’rosh. That phrase in Hebrew is very hard to translate but a midrash explains the moral implications of Amos’ charge.
Rabbi Yudan explained the verse in this way, “it is like a basket full of sins. Which sin brings about the ultimate indictment? Theft and fraud. This is a play on words for the Hebrew word U’v’tza’am in the verse sounds like batza, a synonym for theft and b’rosh means “at the top”, so of all the sins theft is at the top. The midrash continues, Rabbi Yohanan analogized the situation to a person who is guilty of idolatry, and murder, and adultery and theft, yet it is B’tza’am b’rosh fraud is the most severe. Thus in our Torah portion this morning, in reference to the Jubilee year, Moses warns the people: “When you sell property to your neighbor, or buy any from your neighbor, you shall not wrong or defraud one another.”
It seems odd to put robbery or fraud at the top of the list of significant sins but I think what the sages are trying to point out is that what agitates most societies, what causes ultimate disruption in the societal fabric are pocket book transgressions. Murder, moral turpitude, religious heresies can exist and societies absorb these actions, or ignore them but economic inequality and corruption will cause an upheaval to societal structure. And given our contemporary situation I think we can relate.
A day does not go by without new revelations of corruption and wrongdoing by this current administration. Adultery, sexual assault, war mongering, influence peddling and conspiring with Russia to impact on our free elections make for shocking and titillating news stories, yet it will be economic issues that have the greatest impact and will be the factor that either weakens or strengthens this administration.
There is no doubt that the elections in 2016 and 2017 all hinged on the unfairness that many Americans see in our current system and the impact on their lives. An example from the newspaper this week: The airline industry has made significant profits for the last five years. Last year was the same, despite Airline representatives noting that fuel and labor costs increased by more than $7 billion when compared with 2016. So how did they make a tidy profit? To the tax overhaul legislation adopted by federal lawmakers last year even while the annual American Customer Satisfaction Index study of more than 12,000 Americans found that satisfaction with airlines dropped 2.7 percent this year reversing all of last year’s improvement. So companies at least in this industry are increasing profits not because they are providing better service but because the government gave them huge tax breaks.
And both ends of the political spectrum see the system as unfair. On the right there is the belief that open immigration policies and lackadaisical policing of undocumented workers keep wages down; on the left is the belief that it is the systemic nature of our capitalist system that makes economic inequality grow and keeps workers scrambling while corporate interests increase profits.
The Torah recognizes that fair and just economic policies are a balance between those who have the resources or the capital and those who do not.
Nechama Leibowitz in discussing this parasha notes that both buyers and sellers are addressed by the Torah.
When you the vendor sell property to your neighbor, or you the purchaser buy any from your neighbor, neither of you shall wrong the other. In buying from your neighbor, you the purchaser shall deduct only for the number of years since the jubilee; and he the vendor in selling to you the purchaser, shall charge you only for the remaining crop years: the more years that you the buyer will be able to benefit from the use of the land, the higher the price you pay; the fewer such years since in the Jubilee year you will have to return the land to the family of the original owner, the price will be lower; for what he is selling you is a number of harvests. Neither of you shall wrong one another, but show reverence for your God; for I the LORD am your God.”
Leibowitz points out that the Torah is not concerned with exclusive protecting the interests of either purchaser or vendor, rather both parties have been admonished to abide by the principles of justice and honesty which alone should reign in the world and should not be crowded out by selfish greed.
In these verses the phrase “neither of you shall wrong the other” occurs twice. The Torah never uses words indiscriminately, what lesson is being expressed here by admonishing us twice in so concise a section?
Rashi explains that there are two kinds of fraudulent behavior that are being placed in check.
“First [The text] comes to warn against wronging [by overcharging, [namely, that] when you sell or purchase land, you should be aware of how many years remain until the [next] Jubilee, and according to [that number of] years and the crops that it is fit to yield, the seller should sell and the buyer should buy. For indeed, the purchaser will eventually return the land to the seller in the Jubilee year. Thus, if there are [only] a few years [left until the next Jubilee year], and the owner sells it for a high price, the purchaser has been wronged. And if there are many years [left until the next Jubilee year], and the buyer will eat many crops from it but he underpays, the seller has been wronged. Therefore, it must be purchased according to the time [left until the next Jubilee].”
With reference to the second admonition, Rashi points out another form of potential fraud: “Here, Scripture is warning against verbal fraud, namely, that one must not provoke his fellow, nor offer dishonest advice to the detriment of the advisee and the benefit to the advisor. And if you say, “Who can tell whether I had dishonest intentions” The Torah states “and you shall show reverence before your God.” Who knows the inner thoughts of a person.”
Leibowitz concludes that the Torah is thus warning us not to wrong our fellow in all varieties of fraudulent dealings. Any taking advantage of the weakness of one’s neighbor, even raising false hopes (like promising to bring back certain industries that are no longer profitable or healthy for our environment) or tactless remarks that insult the other is wrong.
The Torah as it often does speaks to all listeners, the owners of land and the buyers, the dispossessed as well as the acquisitionists, the employer and the employed. It reminds us that the economic ideal is balance and fairness. The theological underpinning for this approach is that ultimately none of us own anything, all is under God’s purview. Our responsibility as stewards of God’s world is to ensure that the Divine intention for fairness and honesty is actualized.