Erev Rosh Hashanah 5769

September 29, 2008

A friend recently sent me an essay by Anne Lamott that began, “I had to leave church Sunday morning when it turned out that the sermon was not about bearing up under desperate circumstances, when you feel like you’re going crazy because something is being perpetrated upon you and your country that is so obscene that it simply cannot be happening.” For those of you who are hoping, like Lamott, for a teaching that speaks to the headlines of the moment, I apologize. Frankly, I don’t know what to say. What do I know that you don’t?

What I do know is the blessing of the High Holidays is one of hope. This room is a sanctuary from the passions and fears that keep us awake at night. In here we keep our spiritual freedom by being clear about our values that demand we see everyone in God’s Image. When we know who we are and for what we stand, then we can vote intelligently for leaders who demonstrate justice and mercy.

Long before current national crises and personal tragedy, I decided to base my sermons this year on a midrash, which is a story the rabbis told 1500 years ago in the Talmud. I chose it because it is most appropriate to study in our season of introspection and self-judgment. Since then, I have found that the three teachings I’m offering this year feel even more germane in helping us steer past this difficult moment and give velocity to our lives.

The Talmud is an indirect source of wisdom. It is associative rather than deductive, dream-like in its narrative, and its meaning is often cloaked in metaphor and hyperbole. The midrash that has guided and goaded me for many years is simple. It describes an intimate yet terrifying scene when we come face to face at the end of our lives with the One who has made us, and it’s a quiz. We’ll be asked four questions. These four are nothing like the four questions at Passover. They have nothing to do with collective history, only our personal journey.

If you’re thinking that God will ask whether we’ve been kind, good and generous, you’re off the mark. And if you’re sweating your irregular synagogue attendance, don’t worry. God isn’t going to ask you how Jewish you were. Not that these things aren’t important; perhaps they are a given. The questions are deeper, however, than simply behaving well. They reveal what is most important in our tradition and how we measure ourselves against them.

The first question asks, “Did you deal fairly in business?” The second question is, “Did you set aside time to study regularly?” The next question is, “Did you have children?” Finally, “Did you keep hope for the future?”

This evening we’ll consider the first question, which frankly not only surprised but disappointed me. What does commerce have to do with heaven? I’m a rabbi and a writer. What do I know or care about business? But then I remembered an expression of my father’s that he said about any human transaction, “It all depends upon who you’re doing business with.”

The rabbis had a bigger picture for what they meant by business. How we do business is the bedrock of all relationships. Being kind is good, but being fair comes first, and it goes beyond written law. How we do business reveals our fear that we don’t have enough or it reveals our faith that we do. When we interact, that is, when we do business together, do you and I remember that God dwells between us when we see each other as godly?

With some people, when we ask for a cup of sugar, that’s what we get. With others, we get a little extra. Sometimes it comes with a request for something from us. Some of us are generous by nature, others stingy. Because people do business differently, we have laws that guide everyone towards right behavior. Life isn’t fair. Sometimes it is shocking in its imperfection. So it is up to us to bring heaven to earth by bringing the presence of justice and kindness into the world.

There are more Jewish laws for business dealings than any other category. The rabbis understood that the desire for wealth and its power is so strong that it controls us unless we put brakes on it. Old age and physical weakness don’t diminish the yetzer hara that drives the lust for money. One who has a hundred wants two hundred, the sages say. Judging by corporate and political America, we still could use help.

The rabbis said that character is tested through business (Avot d’rabi Natan). We are called to sanctify God’s name everywhere, and doing business right is as much a spiritual practice as meditation, prayer, fasting, and study. One of the books of the Mishnah is called Nezikin, which means Damages. Surprisingly, in the midst of this legal investigation regarding property damages is a collection of wisdom sayings called Pirke Avot, the Wisdom of the Ancestors. One of its best-known verses is from Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?”

Nezikin is also called the Book of Redemption, because damages are more than a legal matter. When we behave fairly, we redeem ourselves from personal darkness. When justice prevails over selfishness, greed, and unhealthy materialism, we imagine ourselves in the divine Image.

Two cataclysmic moments occur early in Torah, the Flood, and Sodom and Gomorrah. What was so terrible about those people that the only solution was to wipe them out? In Noah’s time, people stole from one another, but not so much they would be prosecuted. They might take an extra measure of flour when the owner turned away, or a wine merchant might slightly water down his product. And the citizens of Sodom–what was their sin? They refused to share their wealth with others.

Judaism is unequivocal about such acts. Individual acts of dishonesty and callousness is not only corrupt behavior; they are the beginning of the destruction of society. When we steal, we take more than goods. We steal trust and well being. When we withhold goods that others need, we hide God’s face.

In the 12th Century Maimonides set a high standard for those involved in buying and selling: “The commerce of the talmid hacham, the wise student who must be a role model, has to be in truth and faith. His yes is to be yes and his no, no; she forces herself to be exact in calculations when she is paying, but is willing to be lenient when others are her debtors. One should be careful not to deprive one’s neighbors of a livelihood [even where this is legal] or cause hardship and anguish to others. One who does all these things is referred to by the prophet, Isaiah, when he said, ‘You are My servant, Israel, with Whom I exult.'”

The primary question to ask in an examination of business ethics is, “What does Judaism say about wealth?” Some societies view it as evil; for them there is no problem with behaving ethically. On the other hand, in societies where money is the sole purpose of our lives, there is no hope for economic morality.

While the tradition doesn’t see poverty as a spiritual path, nor does it condemn having money. Our ancestors were wealthy. All the blessings we are promised for keeping the commandments are material ones: the rain will flow when we do God’s will; the crops will wither and die from drought if we oppress the widow and orphan.

When the High Priest came out of the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur after receiving salvation and forgiveness for us, he recited a prayer asking not for gratitude and peace of mind. All he prayed for was a decent livelihood for everyone so that they could earn honestly and that they wouldn’t need to depend upon charity. At the same time, the wise ones cautioned that wealth is more of a spiritual challenge than poverty.

The rabbis suggested four ways in which we may look at wealth. The way that most people transact is with the understanding that what is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours. At first this seems just fine, no cheating, no worry, it’s fair. But the rabbis didn’t think this was any kind of ideal. The rabbis called it “the mark of the average person.”

There is no such thing as unlimited private property in Judaism. What we own is meant to provide for our and our family’s needs and to be used to help others. We are given money so we can help others. That’s why charging interest when we lend money to others is wrong.

We need more than laws, however, to create an ethical society. We need education. A Jewish farmer knew not to harvest the corners of his field to leave something for the poor. The law not only helped the widow and orphan. It taught mercy to the farmer and grew a generous spirit in him. When a society maintains absolute private property, it rejects the Source of its wealth. What’s mine is mine is the canonized preparation for a society in which institutionalized theft and legalized inhumanity flourish.

Mine is yours and yours is mine is the mark of ignorance, the rabbis said. Although this is the straight socialism of the kibbutz movement and is not wrong, it goes against human nature. Neither socialism nor communism has eliminated injustice. Before we can give to others, we have to have something to give away. Giving up what is legally and morally one’s own raises us, and this system doesn’t allow it.

We live in a world that makes it difficult to understand the highest behavior that comes from understanding that mine is yours and yours is yours. We don’t abandon our property but we make it available to others. This is how we imitate God who created the world, who owns the world, and yet provides for all of us. We are called to go beyond the law, even if we have a claim against another.

Ours is a litigious society, and the sages tell us that the Second Temple was destroyed because people demanded exerting their full legal rights. We are obligated to allow another to benefit if it doesn’t harm us. For example, if I’m selling my house and my next–door neighbor wants the right of first refusal because his land will be worth more with mine, I must sell it to him. This isn’t just righteousness and kindness. It’s acknowledgment that the source of all wealth comes from God.

Evil is obviously the behavior of the one who says, “Mine is mine, and yours is mine.” Even if we don’t behave this way, the very feeling is coveting, and it is our hunger for what another has that leads us to steal or harm another’s wealth.

When do we have enough? Only by learning to restrain material appetites, voluntarily limiting our needs and by teaching the difference between real needs and imaginary wants can we live in a moral world. We have so many laws about business to give us the biggest picture of how we are to behave: with compassion, empathy, and fairness.

Regardless of the face in front of us, we are always doing business with God. Whatever we are given is intended to serve the world. By remembering the Source and intention of our gifts makes us all honest business people. The blessings of doing business fairly will serve us on earth, and we’ll have the right answer when we’re asked how we did business.