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"That's a nice watch that you have, Elchonon."
"I just bought it a minute ago, Simcha, and paid sixty dollars. I am on my way to a watchmaker to see if I got a good deal. Do you want to come along?"
The two men walk a short distance to the watchmaker. Inside, they find two other men with the same identical watch as Elchonon bought. One had paid fifty-nine dollars for the watch, and the other sixty-one dollars.
"How much are these watches worth, sir?"
"They normally sell for fifty dollars."
"What? We have all been ripped off! We are going back to that store to demand our money back!"
The question is:
Are the sales valid, or do they get their money back?
The answer is:
The Mishna (Bava Metziah 49b) discusses the subject of ona'ah - overcharging. The subject is very complicated; however, the main rules are laid out in Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 227:1-5. If a seller overcharges less than a sixth of the true price, the sale is valid and it stands. This is not considered unfair profiteering. Therefore, the man who paid $59 for the watch does not receive his money back. The man who paid $60, however, was overcharged and can receive his ten dollars back. He cannot return the watch because the sale was valid. The man who paid $61 was overcharged more than the allowable amount (1/6) and the whole sale in invalid. He returns the watch and receives all of his money back.
This puzzle and answer is for learning and discussion purposes only. Do not rely upon it for psak halacha! Consult a Rav to determine the correct halachic ruling.
"Have you seen enough of this property to make a decision?"
"Yes, I like what I see. It looks like good farmland. Are there any special conditions pertaining to the land that I must know about?"
"Yes, a few. First, when you plant a new tree, you may not eat any of the fruit for three years. The fruits of the fourth year of the new tree must be taken to Yerushalayim and eaten there."
"I see. Anything else?"
"The bikurim, first fruits of the year, must be taken to Yerushalayim and give to a Kohen."
"Okay. Now can we talk price?"
"There are a few other conditions first. Before you eat the fruits of your labors, you must first give Trumah to the Kohen, Maaser Rishon to the Levi, and depending on the year, Maaser Oni to the poor person. You must leave the fruit that you forgot, the fruit that you left behind, and corners of the field for the needy."
"Hmmm. There seem to be quite a few conditions over here."
"I'm not finished. Once every seven years, you may not sow this field at all. Whatever grows by itself is hefker, free for anyone to take. After seven cycles of seven years, on the 50th year, the land returns to its original owner."
"One minute. Let me see if I have this straight. A good portion of the fruits I have to give away. Some of the ones I keep have to be taken far away to be eaten. I cannot even work the field at all every seven years. I have to give it away after 49 years.""That is correct."
"I'm sorry. I cannot purchase a piece of land with all of these conditions upon it. It won't really be mine."
"The land shall not be sold for ever, for the land is Mine." (Vayikra 25:23). The verse is referring to the land of Israel. It belongs to Hashem. We may buy, sell, and work it, but only under His conditions.* The Sifra comments that one should not look negatively upon these conditions. The Malbim explains that buyer should not feel badly that he will have to give the land back eventually. For it is not really his. Similarly, the seller should not be discouraged that he cannot make a permanent sale. Rather, they should both realize that they are just residents on the King's land. As the verse states, "For you are strangers and residents with Me" (Vayikra 25:23). "Do not make yourselves 'ikar' (the central figure)," states the Malbim. How do we understand this? A person puts time, effort, money, and energy into farming his land. He plows, he plants, he fertilizes, he weeds, he waters, he harvests, he gathers, and he prepares the crops for eating. After all of this work, he may sit back and say, "Look what I did. Isn't it beautiful? I am now going to enjoy the fruits of my labors. I earned it through my hard work." "Do not fall into this trap!" warns the Sifra. "Do not make yourselves the ikar." You cannot make a fruit grow. Without Hashem running the world under the guise of the "laws of nature," nothing would ever grow. Your efforts are nothing more than small actions, compared to Hashem's mastery of the world. He is The Ikar. You are just "strangers and residents" with Him.
The Malbim then draws a beautiful parable. Just as the buyer and seller are only staying on the land temporarily, so too our souls are only on this earth temporarily. Just as the land goes back to its original owner at Yovel (the 50th year), so too our souls go back to their home, the Heavenly realm, after 120 years. The spiritual side of us, the G-dly soul, is only a temporary resident here. Its roots are under the Heavenly throne. To there it aspires to return, after it completes its earthly mission.
Kinderlach . . .
You work hard. You accomplish. You succeed. You learn a whole mesechta. You make a siyum. You feel great. It is tempting to say, "Look what I did!" Stop. Think. Keep things in perspective. Who blessed you with eyesight to see the words of gemora? Who blessed you with hearing to listen to your Rebbe and your chavrusa? Who blessed you with the intelligence to understand the Word of Hashem? And the memory to remember it? The One Above. He is The Ikar. As the verse states, "He made us and we are His," (Tehillim 100:3). This realization will bring you to love Hashem kinderlach. You will see and appreciate how much He does for you. You will change the focus from yourself to Hashem. You will replace the Yetzer Hara with the Yetzer Hatov. Kinderlach, hatzlacha rabba (may Hashem grant you much success)!
*The Bircas Mordechai expands this concept to include other mitzvos of the Land.
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