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When you sell of buy something from another person… do not extort one another (25:14).
No man should extort his fellow man, and you shall fear G-d, for I am the L-rd your G-d (25:17).
The Talmud (Bava Metzia 58b) distinguishes between these two prohibitions of extortion. The first refers to ona'at mammon - overcharging in a business deal. A strawberry market trader, for example, would be guilty of this offence if the going rate for a kilo is five shekels, and he misrepresented that going rate to his customers by charging seven. The second statement refers to - ona'at devarim - literally 'extortion with words'. This phrase expresses the prohibition of hurting others verbally - in personal relationships. It is forbidden to remind people of embarrassing aspects of their past or their ancestry: for example to show less that due respect to a learned and exemplary Torah personality because he followed a hippy lifestyle in his youth. It is also wrong to rebuke a person for a misdemeanor with a tirade that assassinates his entire personality and makes him feel worthless.
The wrongs of overcharging, and of talking hurtfully to others are both denoted by the same term in the text - ona'a. What have they in common?
In addition, why does the Torah appear to place a greater weighting against hurting others than against overcharging? For in ona'at mammon, the text states 'do not extort one another' without any further qualification. But with ona'at devarim it states, 'no man should extort his fellow man' and then it continues, 'you shall fear G-d.'
Moreover, the Torah elsewhere legislates against hurtful speech by forbidding gossip (even where the facts are correct), and slander. What puts ona'at devarim into a class of its own, requiring the Torah to legislate against it?
In answering these points, it is important to examine the nature of ona'at devarim. The realities of verbal harassment are in many ways worse than gossip and slander. Ridiculing someone can have an enduring effect upon his personality development, often subjecting the victim to humiliation and scorn. In its more severe forms, it can permanently damage his self-esteem and his ability to relate to others. Humiliation does not only result from words; it can also be the consequence of an intentional snub. It can be very demeaning when ignored by others, giving the victim the feeling of being worthless. While the individual should not be obsessed with his ego, a reasonable self-image is essential for emotional stability. Thus, denigrating a person with either disparaging words or by giving him the cold shoulder when a smile would make his day is acting reprehensibly. Verbal abuse may seem to be non-violent, but it creates damage that lasts long after the marks of a violent blow have disappeared. The lack of self-esteem resulting from being the object of someone's verbal abuse can have deleterious effects that stigmatize generations, as such victims fail to develop their true capabilities as adults and, lacking self confidence, often pass it to their children.
Unlike gossip and slander, and unlike ona'at mammon, the person guilty of ona'at devarim can easily defend himself - and on the surface at least, get away with it. He may retort "I speak like this for your own good", or more 'sweetly' "I am only trying to help you." In some cases - such as a well-deserved, but sufficiently tactful telling-off, that might be true. In others - namely an uncontrolled exhibition of ill-temper or verbal bullying, it is not. The victim gains the psychological satisfaction of at the expense of the other's mental well-being, just as the swindler gets the financial satisfaction at the expense of the other's financial well-being. Unlike the victim of extortion, the insulted has no legal recourse to financial redress. Therefore the text states, 'You shall fear G-d' - He knows what your true motives were. The Almighty also knows something else: He created the victim with sensitivities so that he can tell whether the rebuker is acting constructively or destructively - and he will not be easily fobbed off with an 'I am only trying to help you'.
I remember with pleasure a certain teacher of Talmud who had an English-speaking student who, even after several years of study, had an almost total block with the language of the Gemara, but nevertheless was quite intelligent. Instead of causing him the humiliation of relegation to a lower group, he tactfully incorporated him within the class by calling on him to answer issues raised by others in comprehension and in class discussion. That student felt valued and over the years his language difficulties faded…
This week I made use of sources from 'Peninim on the Torah' by R. Leib Scheinbauim (Shema Yisrael Website), and Around the Shabbat Table by Aryeh ben David pp.227-8
QUESTIONS ON THE TEXT AND COMMENTARIES ON PARASHAT BEHAR
A. Referring to the text and commentaries indicated, give the reasons for the following:
1.The command of letting the farmland rest (Shemitta) every seven years (25:4) - according to the Chinuch.
2. The return of real estate to its original owner during the Jubilee year - (25:13) according to the simple explanation given by the Chinuch.
3. The prohibition of a person causing grief to another person (25:14) - according to Rashi.
4. The prohibition of a person causing grief to another person (25:17) - according to Rashi.
5. The differences between the rights of seller to buy back his real estate in an open city, on one hand, and in a walled city, on the other hand.
6. The need to help a person to avoid bankruptcy - according to Rashi.
7. The need for the prohibition for taking interest to be underlied with 'You shall fear your G-d' (25:36) - according to Rashi.
8. The prohibition of working an Israelite slave 'be-farech' ('with rigor' 25:46), according to (a) Rashi, and (b) the Chinuch.
B. Where, in this Parasha, may the following be learnt?
1. The legitimate rights of a Gentile are indeed enforced by Torah law.
2. Sin causes sin and misfortune, which in turn cause more sin and more misfortune.
ANSWERS TO QUESTIONS ON THE TEXT AND COMMENTARIES ON PARASHAT BEHAR
A 1. The command of letting the farmland rest (Shemitta) every seven years (25:4) - according to the Chinuch - is to remind people of their great dependence on the munificence of the Almighty even in so basic activities as food cultivation. Indeed, keeping this Mitzvah will be the source of even greater material blessing from G-d.
2. The return of real estate to its original owner during the Jubilee year - (25:13) - according to the simple explanation given by the Chinuch, is as follows. The Jubilee laws impress on people that land and freedom are Divine gifts, and that He has the will to determine who enjoys what. If people, by counting (25:8) the years to the Jubilee, realize that its restoring of former ownership comes from the Supreme Owner, they will be less likely to cheat and steal - as they see their possessions likewise as having their title granted by the Supreme Owner.
3. The prohibition of a person causing grief to another person (25:14), according to Rashi, applies in this instance to specifically business transactions - such as inducing a person to enter a deal which is clearly extortion.
4. The prohibition of a person causing grief to another person (25:17), according to Rashi, applies in this instance to hurtful words in personal relationships. It is forbidden to remind people of their earlier sins, embarrassing aspects of their past, or their ancestry. Money may be replaced, but shame lingers on…
5. The differences between the rights of seller to buy back his real estate in an open city, on one hand, and in a walled city, are as follows. In the open city, all real estate purchases are leasehold by definition - they revert to their owner in the Jubilee year, when all their leases expire. There is also the opportunity for the seller to buy back his property if his financial situation improves. That is to remind people that 'all property belongs to G-d' (c.f. 25:23) - He is the owner of the 'freehold', as it were. The Biblical exception is the sale of a house in a walled city - the seller has one year's grace to buy back his property, after which its title transfers to the seller as an absolute freehold.
6. The need to help a person to avoid bankruptcy - according to Rashi, is derived from 'When your brother becomes poor… you shall strengthen him' (25:35). Rashi illustrates this point with the load on the ass' back. It is much easier to 'strengthen' - adjust a load in danger of falling, than to let the whole thing smash to the ground and try to pick up the pieces. So the Torah implies that one must assist the person to avoid bankruptcy by helping him out with a loan (25:35-38).
7. The need for the prohibition for taking interest to be underlied with 'You shall fear your G-d' (25:36), according to Rashi, is for the following reason. Without this fear it would be difficult to restrain someone from taking interest, because it seems reasonable to receive something in return for the use of one's money. [However, in Halacha, loans may be converted into business partnerships with shares of profits and losses, by the 'Heter Iska'.]
8. The prohibition of working an Israelite slave 'be-farech' ('with rigor' - 25:46):
(a) According to Rashi, it means that he should not be assigned to degrading meanial, or useless labor - just to 'keep him busy'.
(b) According to the Chinuch, he must still be regarded as a fellow-Israelite with time-consuming and financially non-profitable obligations in 'mitzvot bein adam la-makom' - between Man and G-d. The idolator, on the other hand, is free from such obligations, and as such fulfils his role in the Creation through work and production.
B. 1. The legitimate rights of a Gentile are enforced by Torah law are shown where an Israelites finds himself having to sell himself to a Gentile in the Holy Land. Although such a situation is regarded as a tragedy, Israelite forces are not sent to free him. Rather, he should be redeemed by paying the Gentile pro-rata what he would lose from his service (25:47-54).
2. Sin causes sin and misfortune, which in turn cause more sin and more misfortune may be learnt, according to Rashi, by observing the sequence of the laws in this Parasha. That hints at the following. If a person neglects the rules of the Seventh Year, he will find himself reduced to poverty and have to sell his possessions. If he continues in that way, his deeper poverty will force him to sell his real estate, get into deeper (even illegal) debt, and finally become enslaved - even to a idolator - leading to personal involvement in idolatory (c.f. 26:1).
ADDITIONAL QUESTION ON PARASHAT BEHAR
The text states: G-d spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai… The land shall rest, it is a Sabbath for G-d…(25:1-2).Of all G-d's communications with Moses, this was the only one that was explicitly singled out to have taken place at Mount Sinai. The commentators give many reasons for the connections between Mount Sinai and the Sabbath - here the shemitta (the sabbatical year, during which time there is a prohibition of working agricultural land in Israel). In looking at this issue, the Sifra opens with the following comment: 'In the same way that shemitta was given at Mount Sinai… so were the other mitzvot given at Mount Sinai.' (Sifra, Behar 1:1)What, therefore was so special about Shemitta, over and above other Mitzvot, that it merited the special title of 'Behar Sinai' in its own right - as being used to teach the above lesson.
My attempts to answer the above may be found on the Shema Yisrael website under Behar-Bechukotai 5761
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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