Ki Teitzei – an Honest Weight and an Honest Measure by Frank Kurtz

Parshat Ki Tetze is a strange mix of rules and regulation, very diverse in topic and emphasis, following no logical progression. I would describe it as a random brain dump by Moshe as he strives to get everything out of his head, and onto to the record, that would comprise Torah. These mitzvot range from the basic and comprehensible to the truly bizarre. Few, if any of them, can be taken at face value, and the rabbis have been fully employed for centuries interpreting and re-interpreting them to make them relevant for the many generations who could not otherwise make sense of them.

In reading the parsha, one is obliged to develop one’s own context, that is to seek out one mitzvah and then read ahead to another mitzvah that is thematically related. Such potential themes might include sexual morality, rules of warfare, marital and family relations, and international affairs. The theme I would like to lift out of this mixed bag is the issue of business ethics.

The Torah text reflects the needs of an agrarian and pastoral economy. That perspective changed long ago, and Jewish law has made the shift to economic environments of a mercantile and industrial nature. In our own information-based economy, the position of purely monetary transactions has become paramount, with many of these transactions involving no tangible items at all. And yet Jewish law is still relevant and compelling. These are my interpretations of what the text is trying to teach us:

  1. The right to acquire, maintain, and expand property holdings as a means of economic support must be respected by the community at large.

In Chapter 22, verses 1-3 we are required to return property belonging to others, even holding it in trust until the rightful owner is able to claim it, concluding with the command “you shall do with anything that your fellow loses and you find; you must not remain indifferent.” To be indifferent toward the property of others entitles others to be indifferent toward our own, with the implication that no property is secure in ownership and thus worth acquiring and maintaining. On the other hand, being able to rely on our rights of ownership provides an incentive to increase property ownership within the community at large, and thereby create mechanisms for prosperity from which everyone can benefit.

  1. Charging interest on loans should not be a matter of exploitation.

Chapter 23, verse 7 states “You shall not deduct interest from loans to your countryman, whether in money or food or anything else that can be deducted as interest…so that Adonai your God may bless you in all your undertakings.” The rabbis realized early on that there could be no blanket prohibition on interest-bearing loans between Jews and a different set of ethical standards for loans to non-Jews. Instead, there is the recognition that there are two types of loans – a loan to someone who is financially distressed to help him or her out of a period of personal difficulty, and a loan to someone engaged in a commercial venture with the expectation that end result will be the ability to gain greater wealth by the borrower. As Etz Hayim explains, the rabbis addressed the second instance by developing the heter iska, a kind of business license that allowed lenders and borrowers to form business partnerships, investment agreements, and transfers of capital for which interest-bearing loans were both morally acceptable and financially advantageous. Conversely, Jewish communities are obligated to provide interest-free loans as a matter of tzedakah to those who are in need. Unfortunately, our society is replete with bad examples of cajoling or forcing poor people into debt at ruinous interest rates, which they accept out of desperation. Those who engage in predatory lending or deceptive practices against those who are in need cannot count on G-d’s blessings on the result of their ill-gotten gains. A moral response would be to educate the poor in better financial management and then make sure that resources are available to allow them to borrow and save responsibly.

  1. Taking on debt should not require a loss of livelihood or personal dignity.

Chapter 24 verse 6 states “A handmill or an upper millstone shall not be taken in pawn, for that would be like taking someone’s life in pawn.” Taking a miller’s millstone as a debt security makes as much sense as throwing someone in debtor’s prison; both would have no means of repaying the loan. Torah equates the means to a livelihood – tools, equipment, materials – as the same as life itself. By depriving a person of the essential aspects of economic survival, a creditor is harming the very essence of that person. So debt itself, which may be inevitable, should not mean the loss of self-respect or of devaluing that which is most important to a person’s sense of self-reliance.

  1. Becoming a creditor does not entitle a person to inordinate power over the debtor.

We read in Chapter 24 verse 10: “When you make a loan of any sort to your countryman, you must not enter his house to seize his pledge. You must remain outside, while the man to whom you made the loan brings the pledge out to you.” Torah is teaching that the interior of the debtor’s house is still the domain of the debtor and must be respected as such. It also recognizes that there is an inherent disproportion in power between the person who holds the debt and the person who is indebted. The limits that would otherwise apply out of deference for the dignity of anyone are not removed through indebtedness or financial dependence. Such a rule would also apply to using harassment or coercive force to collect on a debt. A related passage requires that a creditor who is holding a debtor’s blanket as security must return it at nightfall so that the debtor has use of it overnight. This implies that a creditor cannot drive a debtor into personal deprivation just because he has the power to do so. The satisfaction of a debt is mitigated by the obligation to regard the debtor as a member of the community entitled to maintain self-worth and personal integrity.

  1. Timely payment for services rendered is a moral obligation.

Chapter 24 verse 14 reads: “You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger…you must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets, for he is needy and urgently depends on it; else he will cry to Adonai against you and you will incur guilt.” During my time of self-employment, nothing pushed my buttons more than having to chase after delinquent payment of invoices for services. Although I would not have described myself and “needy and destitute”, once I billed for services and was waiting for payment, I felt that I was subsidizing the other party. After all, I still had to pay my bills and expend resources. Most bills were paid in a reasonable amount of time, but there were certain parties who felt that they could delay payment at will, perhaps hoping that we would not notice. My biggest ally was my fax machine for the inevitable excuse that they did not receive or could not find the invoice. After that I engaged in a series of polite but firm phone calls asking for specific dates when payment would be made. Slow payers, especially the insurance companies with whom I had to deal, were breaking a basic ethical trust, that services would be forthcoming according to the buyer’s expectations in exchange for prompt payment. I was fortunate to have the means to pursue my rights in these circumstances, but we have all heard stories of laborers who are cheated out of wages and persecuted when they protested. Harassment and retribution in the workplace are more common that many will admit; those who incur the disfavor of a selfish employer may face any number of financial and employment penalties, often requiring years of litigation and negotiation before a just solution is found. Some employers will exercise arbitrary cruelty over their employees simply because they can get away with it. But putting anyone in an employment situation through unnecessary personal distress, whether through late or deficient remuneration or through infliction of personal hardship is a violation of this principle.

  1. Honesty and ethical behavior must be part of all business practices.

Chapter 25 verse 15 states: “You must have completely honest measures, if you are to endure long on the soil that Adonai your God is giving you…everyone who deals dishonestly is abhorrent to Adonai your God.” The Hebrew word for “abhorrent” is toevah, which is profoundly interesting because of other instances in which it is used, including idolatry and forbidden sexual relations. Either this means that dishonest weights and measures are regarded in Torah as much more serious than we might otherwise assume, or that the other infractions regarding idol worship and sex are not as bad as they have been depicted. I would suggest that both are true, that the social contract expressed in Torah pervades all aspects of life and human experience and that the reliance on uncorrupted business practices is as important in human affairs as sexual relations and loyalty to the God of Israel.

In our own time, there are important lessons that each of us must learn to bring these principles into our own lives.

To exemplify the tzaddik, I would nominate Aaron Feuerstein, owner of Malden Mills in Lawrence, Massachusetts. When a fire destroyed the factory in 1995, he made the remarkable decision to keep all of his employees on the payroll and rebuild the plant, when prevailing wisdom was to take the money and relocate in the South or in Asia. Feuerstein became a national hero as a result, and the CBS program 60 Minutes reported: “I got a lot of publicity. And I don’t think that speaks well for our times,” says Feuerstein. “At the time in America of the greatest prosperity, the god of money has taken over to an extreme.” For guidance he turns to the Torah, the book of Jewish law. “You are not permitted to oppress the working man, because he’s poor and he’s needy, amongst your brethren and amongst the non-Jew in your community,” says Feuerstein, who spent $300 million of the insurance money and then borrowed $100 million more to build a new plant that is both environmentally friendly and worker friendly. And it’s a union shop that never had a strike.

In stark contrast and taking place at about the same time, there is the horrifying case of Washington lobbying Jack Abramov. He was able to enrich himself by frequently illegal lobbying and influencing peddling. He took enormous fees from Native American tribes trying to obtain federal licenses to establish casinos, sometimes lobbying against his own clients at the same time in order to increase the amounts they were compelled to pay him. He established a corrupt network of phony nonprofits, including a Jewish day school of his own devising, to disguise payoffs and further enrich himself illicitly. In the end, when his empire collapsed, he brought down not only himself and his close associates but also several prominent public figures who had profited from his nefarious deeds. His posture as an observant Jew is now forgotten, and his legacy is little more than a cautionary tale.

The ethical mitzvot in Torah have the effect of harmonizing the interactions among people while recognizing that we all have personal interests we are inclined to pursue. Those interests, however, may be moderated so as avoid exploiting and victimizing others, whose personal interests are no less relevant than ours. In the longer term, how we pursue our personal interests defines a legacy, and how we define ourselves within the context of Jewish observance and tradition is a foundation of good deeds that we can bequeath to others.