Wise economic conduct in an age of abundant economy

The Parasha in the everyday life - Parashat Mishpatim - Rabbi Eliezer Shenvald – 5780

וְאֵ֙לֶּה֙ הַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר תָּשִׂ֖ים לִפְנֵיהֶֽם׃

"These are the rules that you shall set before them" (Shmot 21: 1). Our Parasha deals with capital cases-laws דִינֵי מָמוֹנוֹת. It is for that reason, that our Parasha follows the giving of the Torah at the end of the previous Parasha. We would like to address this issue in a timely fashion considering the challenges that are emerging in the era of abundant economics and consumerism.

הנה נחלקו במכילתא רבי ישמעאל ורבי עקיבא רבי ישמעאל אומר לומר לך מה עליונים מסיני אף תחתונים מסיני רבי עקיבא אומר ואלה יכול שונין ולא יודעים תלמוד לומר ואלה וגו'

Sages disagree on the meaning of "adjacency of sections" and how the laws of capital were given to the people of Israel:

"We find a disagreement in the Mechilta between Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Akiva on this subject. The former holds that the reason for the linkage between the Ten Commandments and the ordinances is to tell us that just as the former are of Sinaitic i.e. Divine origin, so are the latter. Rabbi Akiva said the reason for the conjunctive letter 'vav' is that we could have thought that Moshe was to teach the ordinances to the Israelites and if they did not understand them all, he, Moshe, did not have to repeat them" (Mekhilta d'Rabbi Yishmael, Rashi ibid).

What is the meaning of Rabbi Yishmael's words? Rabbi Eliyah Mizrachi explains "just as the earlier statements were revealed at Sinai so the (later) ordinances were also; that even these ordinances were also communicated to the Israelites amidst thunder and lightning, and that G'd spoke more than just the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai and not like the other Mitzvot given to Moshe alone during the forty days he stood on the mountain…" And if so, Parashat Mishpatim was given as well when the Ten Commandments were given"(HaRam ibid).

Some disagreed with the commentary of Rabbi Mizrachi (Gur Aryeh and the Or Hachaim ibid) and believed that the capital laws were given separately, although they also think there is a reason why the two were compared.

Capital cases are part of the Torah given from heaven. These are intended to define ownership of one's property according to the Torah laws, and the ways to distinguish one's property from one another's property.

They regulate the legal determinations between two people who have a financial dispute and reciprocal claims or have caused harm to each other.

The Ramban and Sforno explained the "adjacency of Parashot" of the last commandment לֹ֥א תַחְמֹ֖ד  'You shall not covet' of the Ten Commandments to 'These are the rules':

...ואלה המשפטים כנגד לא תחמוד, כי אם לא ידע האדם משפט הבית או השדה ושאר הממון יחשוב שהוא שלו ויחמדהו ויקחהו לעצמו, לפיכך אמר תשים לפניהם...

"Because if the person did not know the laws of the house or the field and the rest of the financial matters, he might think it was his and take it to himself, therefore 'you shall set before them' and they will not covet what is not theirs" (Ramban ibid).

The link between 'the laws of monies' and the 'do not covet' prohibition, points to the spiritual source of the relation to property. The mental propensity for 'possessiveness' can cause a person to 'covet' his fellow man's property, to blur the distinction between his property and other's. The legal definitions of the Parasha, are intended to refine this examination.

The Rambam says: "Anyone who covets … the house or goods of his neighbor, or anything that he can buy from him, and he exerts friendly pressure and annoys him until he buys it from him, even for a high price, breaks the prohibition: "You shall not covet". (Mishneh Torah Robbery and Lost Property 1:9)

We are in an era of 'abundant economics' and 'consumer culture'. Driven by big companies in the global economy which increase their sales cycles. Materialistic culture that leads to luxury products that are not always necessary for sustenance. Or in unnecessary quantities. It encourages the pursuit of prestigious brands that are a "status symbol" (even when buyers deny it and buy them with various excuses), which makes them buy despite their high price and even when they are not needed. Sometimes people take out a loan (or be in debt) to purchase products they do not have the true financial ability to purchase. A great deal of money is invested in campaigns aimed at persuading potential buyers and exerting psychological and social pressures (some in a manipulative way).

Contemporary rulers have debated the question of whether 'You shall not covet' applies to anyone trying to persuade a person to purchase a product, beyond a normal and reasonable offer, to get a commission. Some argue that it is, and some believe that only persuasion to sell an object is included in this prohibition. ("You shall not covet and marketing" - Rabbi Zoldan).

"The two will never connect: contentment and desire” (Mivchar Hapninim) the way to deal with the challenge, and to acquire only what the person needs is also related to 'not coveting'. The Ibn Ezra asks: How can the person be commanded to overcome the natural emotion and not covet? His answer is "Emunah-faith" that what a person has was designated to him by G-d and what is given to another is not intended for him. So, too, should the person "believe" his or her livelihood was designated to acquire what he needs in life, and profit, and not beyond. Whatever the temptations.

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