Honesty Despite Deceit
This week’s Torah reading tells us about the time Yaakov (Jacob) spent with his uncle, who was also his father-in-law, Lavan. Lavan hired Yaakov to be his shepherd, and time and time again, he cheated Yaakov when it came to the payment they agreed on. Despite Lavan’s non-stop fraudulence, Yaakov amassed a large family and monetary wealth.
When Yaakov noticed that Lavan became very unhappy with him, he decided to flee with his family, and when Lavan found out that Yaakov had left, he chased after him. Catching up with Yaakov, Lavan accused Yaakov of theft. Yaakov responded to the accusation by saying, (31:38-40), “For the past twenty years, your sheep and goats did not miscarry, and I did not eat any of your rams. I did not present you with any animals that were attacked, for I would compensate the loss, including anything that was stolen by day or night. I endured the scorching of the sun by day and the cold of the night, and I deprived my eyes of sleep [to perform my job dutifully].”
The Mesilat Yesharim (chapter 11) cites this as an example of how careful one should be in being honest. Yaakov did not cut any corners. Despite that fact that his employer was a crook who was always tricking him, Yaakov performed his job with impeccable integrity. He exerted himself under trying conditions to do everything in his power to be a loyal shepherd at great expense to his own comfort. And if there was some loss caused despite his utmost efforts, he made sure to compensate his boss. Yaakov did not afford himself any leniencies when it came to being careful with other people’s money. He did not take any chances when it came to the possibility of infringing on another person’s property.
Infringing on Another’s Money is Theft
The Mesilat Yesharim warns that while most people refrain from outright theft, most people do infringe on some level on the money of others in ways they should not. Because when it comes to conducting business, people are very quick to legitimize their earnings, even when it comes at the expense of others, in ways which are not strictly correct. A prime example, the Mesilat Yesharim gives, is an hourly waged employee who does not work one hundred percent of the time he is hired for. Any paid time which the employee utilizes for himself is considered pure theft and is not forgiven without the consent of the employer.
Let’s Take a Taxi
Rabbi Boruch Ber Leibowitz went to America to raise funds for his Yeshivah (school for Talmud study) which was located in Lithuania. A man offered to drive Rabbi Leibowitz around to acquaintances of his to help solicit funds. When the man showed up, he opened the door for Rabbi Leibowitz to enter the car, but Rabbi Leibowitz just stood there hesitantly. The man realized that Rabbi Leibowitz must have been concerned about something.
Apparently, Rabbi Leibowitz realized that the vehicle belonged to his business. Before Rabbi Leibowitz got into the car, he asked his driver, “Do you have any partners in your business?” “Yes,” answered the man. “In that case,” said Rabbi Leibowitz, “We don’t have permission to use the vehicle for purposes that are not for the benefit of the business. Let’s order a taxi.” Despite the fact that a taxi would be a significant expense, Rabbi Leibowitz refused to do something which bordered on unauthorized utilization of the property of others.
A True Servant of God is Careful With the Property of Others
Being careful with utilizing the money of others can be very challenging. One is more likely to be careful with mitzvot (God’s commandments) which take place directly between one and his Creator, than being stringent with honesty and being cautious with the property of others. By nature, people are very quick to legitimize infringing on the property of others. People come up with all sorts of creative reasoning to excuse themselves for the utilization of other people’s money, even when there doesn’t seem to be a clear-cut reason to have these rights. Being a true servant of God requires one to be careful with monetary matters as well.
Yaakov could have easily afforded himself some leeway in working for his father-in-law who was constantly cheating him. But Yaakov understood that on his end, it was his duty to adhere to impeccable honesty, and that’s exactly what he did. We too ought to learn from Yaakov’s example and do our utmost in being careful with all aspects of the utilization of other people’s money and property. For, as the Mesilat Yesharim says, any form of possessing money one does not truly deserve is considered theft.
By Rabbi Yitzchok Aryeh Strimber firstname.lastname@example.org