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Torah Attitude: Parashas Behar: Everyone is better

April 8, 2003


The Torah prohibits buyers and sellers from deceiving one another. The Torah prohibits hurting fellow Jews verbally. One should not inquire of the price if there is no intention to purchase. One should not send someone on a wild goose chase. We are prohibited from reminding both the “ba’al teshuva” and the convert of their past. If someone is afflicted with pain and suffering, one may not tell him that the pain is a punishment for his misconduct. Verbal abuse cannot be reversed. Verbal abuse dishonours G’d. The prophet Elijah disguised himself as an ugly stranger to test a rabbi. In the world to come we find that the ones who are up here may be down there and vice versa. The Alshich and the Ramban in his letter to his son teach proper conduct. The Torah attitude is that you should look at every person as being better than you.

Deceiving buyers and sellers

In this week’s Torah portion, it says, (Vayikra 25:14) “When you make a sale to your fellow or make a purchase from the hand of your fellow, do not do injustice to one another.” A little further in the text it says, (Ibid 25:17) “A man shall not do injustice to his fellow, and you shall fear your G’d…” An obvious question arises why this prohibition of doing injustice is repeated one verse after another? Rashi quotes from our sages that the first verse is dealing with business conduct. This is a prohibition against the seller deceiving the buyer by overcharging and against the buyer deceiving the seller when he sells valuable merchandise for less than its value if the seller is not aware of its real value.

Verbal damage – no intention to purchase

The second verse is a prohibition against hurting a fellow Jew verbally. The Talmud (Bava Metzia 58b) enumerates a number of examples. A person should not inquire about the price of some merchandise if one has no intention of buying it. For example, it is prohibited to inquire about the price in order to obtain a lower price from another merchant or to confirm that one received a good price for merchandise already purchased. There is no problem to make inquiries to obtain the best possible price provided there is a real possibility that one will purchase the item from the vendor.

Wild goose chase

A person should not provide misleading advice to another as a jest or for some other reason. The Torah prohibits sending others on a wild goose chase.

Ba’al Teshuva and converts

Likewise, a person is prohibited from reminding another of his past misconduct. This also applies in regards to both the “ba’al teshuva” and the convert. We have to be very careful not to hurt them by referring to mistakes they made before undertaking their new commitments to Judaism. For the convert, the Torah has an additional prohibition: (Shemos 22:20) “You shall not do injustice or oppress a convert …” This extra requirement is necessary because in regards to a convert it is more likely for us to breach this prohibition.

Pain and suffering

Furthermore, if someone is afflicted with pain and suffering, one may not tell him that the pain is a punishment for his misconduct. It is an injustice to hurt others verbally by suggesting what we believe to be the reason for their pain and suffering.

Serious offence

We see here the high standards of Torah expectations for the Jewish nation how to conduct itself. No other judicial system would have laws prohibiting any of these examples of verbal conduct. Not only does the Torah prohibit this conduct, but the Talmud (ibid) explains that the prohibition of hurting someone else verbally is a more serious offence than hurting him financially. The Talmud offers three reasons for this: (1) in connection with this prohibition it says, “And you shall fear your G’d”. That in itself indicates the seriousness of the offence; (2) when you hurt someone verbally you are hurting the person himself. Whereas if you hurt someone financially you are hurting his assets; and (3) verbal abuse cannot be reversed. Once the damage is done, no apology or excuse can reverse the damage. However, financially damages can always be reversed through compensation.

Dishonouring G’d

The Alshich elaborates on the reasons why the Torah concludes the prohibition with the words “and you shall fear your G’d”. He explains that we should be aware that when we hurt others verbally, we are not only disrespecting the honour of others, we are also dishonouring G’d. Every Jew has a Divine spark. If we taunt or ridicule others, we are also ridiculing the Divine spark of G’dliness they contain.

The Rabbi and the ugly stranger

There is a story told about one of the rabbis in the Talmud (Taanis 20) who was returning home from his teacher. His spirit was very elated after learning so much Torah. On the way, he met an extremely ugly person. Our sages explain that this was really the prophet Elijah in disguise who had come to test him. Elijah greeted him. However, in his elated mood, the Rabbi did not return the greeting. On the contrary, he said, “You ugly person. Are all the people in your town so ugly?” Elijah answered, “I don’t know but why don’t you go to the craftsman that made me to tell him what an ugly vessel he produced.” Immediately, the Rabbi realized that he had sinned. He lowered himself from his donkey, and prostrated himself in front of the stranger. He begged him for forgiveness. Elijah said, “I will not forgive you until you go to the craftsman who made me and tell him what an ugly vessel he produced.” All the way to town, the Rabbi walked behind the stranger. As they arrived at the town, the townspeople came out to honour the Rabbi with due respect. Elijah asked, “Who are you honouring?” They answered, “The one who is travelling behind you.” He said, “If this is a Rabbi, may there not be many like him in the Jewish nation.” “What happened,” asked the townspeople and Elijah related the events to them. The townspeople requested Elijah to forgive the Rabbi because he was such a great scholar. Elijah agreed to forgive him for their sake on condition that he would never repeat this kind of behaviour. After this the Rabbi gave a lecture and said, “A person shall always be humble and soft like a reed and not arrogant and hard like a cedar tree.”

The world to come

The Alshich continues to explain that a person should never feel himself better than another, whether he is bigger or smaller. As the Talmud says (Pesach im 50a), “In the world to come we find that the ones who are up here may be down there and vice versa.” Only in the world of truth we will find out who is really great and who is not. There was a person who always honoured everyone he met and always felt that others were always better than him. He explained his conduct in the following way: “If the other person is younger than me, he is likely to have fewer sins than I. If he is older than me, he is likely to have more merits than I. If he is a greater scholar, I must honour him for that. If I am a greater scholar than him, then my wrongdoings are more serious than his because he was not aware of the pitfalls as I was.”

Ramban’s letter

The Ramban, in his famous letter to his son, teaches him to conduct himself in a similar way. He says, “If you meet an affluent person he must be honoured for his virtues. If you are more affluent or smarter than him, you have to realize that your obligations are greater.”

Exceedingly humble

Our sages tell us, “Be exceedingly humble in front of every individual” (Perkei Avos 4:4-12). You should look at every person as being better than you. With this kind of Torah attitude, no one will come to do injustice to another.

These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.

Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Jerusalem, Israel