Thursday, May 17, 2012

Behar-Behukotai

The Book of Leviticus that we now conclude is filled with details about the sacrificial cult, the establishment of the priesthood and the maintenance of the sanctuary.  Even in ancient times maintaining the temple was an expensive undertaking.  Thus scholars suggest that the final chapter (Leviticus 27) was an addendum to the book, saying in effect this is how we are going to pay for the preceding.   Everyone was asked to make votive offerings of silver or animals to help support the temple.  In this spirit I want to thank all who participated in last night’s dinner and fundraiser.  As in ancient days we as well depend on such offerings.  Thank you!  Most of all I continue to remain grateful for our spirit of friendship and community.

Within our portion we also find details about land ownership.  “When you sell property to your neighbor, or buy any from your neighbor, you shall not wrong one another.” (Leviticus 25:14)  The Talmud expands this rule to apply to more than real estate transactions and suggests that egregious overcharging is grounds for canceling any agreement.  (Baba Metzia 47b)  Even more interesting the Midrash expands this ruling further saying that you must not wrong another with harmful words. (Vayikrah Rabbah 33:1)

Thus you are not even supposed to ask a merchant the price of something when you have no intention of buying it.  Why?  First of all you might then deceive yourself into thinking that you can afford to purchase the item.  Most important you might raise the hopes of the merchant.  He or she might come to believe that you intend to buy the item.  In fact you might just be gathering information so you can buy it for less on the Internet.   While many stand guilty of doing this (including me!) we might be better served to heed the tradition’s caution.  Piety begins with our words.  It extends to each and every situation, each and every setting.  We cannot leave our sacred words in the synagogue, or even in our homes.  They must find their way to the streets and the stores as well.

Judaism has long taught that words matter.    With them we can raise someone’s hopes.  With them as well we can ruin someone’s day.  Even when it comes to business transactions our tradition believes that words must be used fairly and wisely.  We cannot say whatever we want, bending the truth, in order to make a deal.  Words are a priceless commodity.  Our culture trades them as if they do not matter, as if their valuation is zero.  Our Jewish tradition in contrast believes that their value is beyond measure.

We cannot use our words in one way in our personal lives and another in business.  In all contexts our words must reach for holiness.  They can break another’s spirit, or lift them out of despair.  The Midrash offers a metaphor: “Ben Sira said, ‘A glowing coal is before him.  He blows upon it and it burns; he spits upon it and it goes out.’”  Such are the power of our words.

We must always remember that with our words we can both ignite and extinguish.  In the synagogue, in our homes, in our businesses, in every situation our words matter.  With them we can wrong another.  With them we can right another.

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