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Thinking, Speaking, and Acting: the Braid of Social Responsibility

(This dvar Torah was presented on May 15, 2004 at the Havurah's
first adult B'nai Mitzvah ceremony.)

Start by imagining a rock and some water. To make a pattern of concentric circles, drop the stone in a still body of water. The falling stone is the intent and meaning of the Torah as given on Mount Sinai. The first ripple of water displaced by the rock is the word "Tonu" which occurs twice in this portion. "Tonu" roughly translated means defraud or wrong. Emanating concentric waves are created by different modes of interpretation.

In the first verse, "Tonu" is embedded in the context of land transactions. Here, we are commanded to refrain from defrauding our neighbor in buying and selling land. We are required to meet that end by following a formula for calculating the fair market value of land, which includes an element of time until and after "The Jubilee Year". The intended purpose of the rule is to curtail vengeance.

In the fourth verse, we are again commanded to not wrong each other and to fear God because "the Lord is God". According to a literal reading, the text repeats the first verse with the addition of an enforcement phrase. Yet, commentators have expanded the negative commandment to include avoiding wronging each other in any transactions. Further, that "an overcharge (or underpayment) of more than one sixth of the fair value of an article constitutes wrong and may justify voiding the transaction. Clearly, limiting profit or loss for a transaction is contrary to our form of capitalist culture, where gross profits are deemed legal.

Wading to the next circle, commentators, including Sifra and Rashi, have further stretched the meaning of the order. They claim that one must refrain from wronging ones neighbor with words. This would include any direct face to face communication. For example, one must not remind a rehabilitated convict of his former crimes. The intended result is to avoid embarrassing a neighbor. Also, one should not inquire the price of an article he does not intend to buy. The evil avoided is unjustifiably raising a neighbor's expectation. However, today valid and invalid reasons exist to request a price, for instance it is valid to ask the price of a home in determining its fair market value.

Flowing to the softer circles at the edge of the water, the concept of not wronging a neighbor with words has been expanded by the Lashon Hara movement, which teaches people to desist from language that is hurtful when the person is not present to defend themselves. The power of words as weapons to harm people is emphasized by the movement. According to the Talmud, one should refrain from saying anything that will insult or anger someone.

Finally, at the circle which is barely visible, I could project an interpretation that would require people to refrain from any thoughts that might harm or hurt a neighbor. If these exponentially expanding interpretations are followed to their logical conclusion the result is obviously ridiculous and far from the literal reading of the text.

The theme of Behar is social responsibility. This portion reveals the importance of making socially mindful decisions. The commandment is not as important as the teaching about human nature that requires constant reminders to think before we speak or act. Because human affairs are complicated and involve weighing multiple interests, individual and communal, it is critical to be mindful of value conflicts in decision making, balancing all sides is critical.

I am reminded of the wisdom of Hillel in this regard, as he has said; If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?

It seems inevitable that harming neighbors can not be avoided where values are in conflict and consequences flow from every set of choices. Never-theless, Behar teaches one to raise his awareness of the interrelationship between thinking, speaking, and acting and thereby moves society towards a less egocentric world.

Simultaneously, this portion has us consider the consequences of our actions on community members, which requires a communal viewpoint. This integrated world view creates an environment which fosters socially responsible members. Finally, imagine returning to the rock submersed in water. The stone is social responsibility and the water is God's covenant, now as they should be, inseparable.

Type: Dvar Torah