Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Limits of Profit

Parshat BeHar
Vayikra 25:1 – 26:2
10 Iyar 5771 / May 13 – 14, 2011

The Limits of Profit
Dvar Torah Parashat Be'Har
by Paul Feldman, MH Mexico City
35. If your brother becomes destitute and his hand falters beside you,
you shall support him [whether] a convert or a resident, so that he
can live with you.

36. You shall not take from him interest or increase, and you shall
fear your God, and let your brother live with you.

לה. וְכִי יָמוּךְ אָחִיךָ וּמָטָה יָדוֹ עִמָּךְ וְהֶחֱזַקְתָּ בּוֹ
גֵּר וְתוֹשָׁב וָחַי עִמָּךְ:

לו. אַל תִּקַּח מֵאִתּוֹ נֶשֶׁךְ וְתַרְבִּית וְיָרֵאתָ מֵאֱלֹהֶיךָ
וְחֵי אָחִיךָ עִמָּךְ:

Profit is the consequence and purpose of human enterprise. It can be obtained in either of two ways. People can either create wealth in a society or take it away from it. In this way, profit in itself is fundamentally neutral, in a moral sense. However, the means through which it is obtained are not.

I would like to focus primarily on this passage because I believe it possess a strong message, which I think is of great relevance in current times, and because it explicitly places a limit in the means
that man can employ to become wealthy. Such a passage does not only have a prohibition against usury which has been most commonly cited, but I also believe it has a much deeper meaning. It is a direct limit on how much one person can profit on another's misery, and quite clearly that limit is zero. That means we are compelled to help each other in times of need and not to profit from these actions. Although we can seek retribution/reimbursement, we may not collect gains from helping somebody in times of need. Even further, Jews are compelled to this action through fear of Adona-i, which would make it seem like there is an implicit threat and/or punishment from deviating from helping those in a state of need.

23. The land shall not be sold permanently, for the land belongs to
Me, for you are strangers and [temporary] residents with Me.

וְהָאָרֶץ לֹא תִמָּכֵר לִצְמִתֻת כִּי לִי הָאָרֶץ כִּי גֵרִים
וְתוֹשָׁבִים אַתֶּם עִמָּדִי:

Additionally, this Parasha establishes ownership over the land and the fruit it bears. It belongs to Hashem and is only temporarily placed in our care. It is only a lease given to us so we can sustain ourselves, but there is a boundary of how much we can exploit it, shmittah. And even though many scholars claim the exact shmittah only pertains to Israel's land the last verse shows that there is another shmittah in effect, one which limits humans from destroying that which is not theirs. In effect, the parasha states that nothing can be alienated in perpetuity. This is to the extent that yovel, the 50th year or jubilee year, is one in which land is reverted to their original owner. Therefore also placing a limit on the inequity allowed.


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