Friday, May 03, 2013

Beware! Abuse!! Parashat Behar-Bechukotai

Our Torah-reading this Shabbat is the source for one of the most neglected of all mitzvot de'oraita (Laws with Biblical legal status). I am talking about the mitzvah of Ona'ah, and particularly Ona'at Devarim.

Mitzva 1 of Ona'ah is אונאת ממון (Vayikra 25:14) – in simple English, overcharging, or making an unreasonable mark-up on a sale - the Rabbis allowed no more than an 18% mark-up. At times, when there is full transparency of a high mark-up on the part of both the buyer and seller, then no law is contravened. And yet, I think the Torah is warning us of the economic abuses that can take place in a market economy, and that sometimes, just because we can get away with it does not make inflated profits ethical. Furthermore, I sense there is little transparency as to the profits our stores are making on our food, clothing, appliances and services.

Mitzva 2 of Ona'ah is (Vayikra אונאת דברים (25:17 otherwise described as verbal abuse. Any language that shames, embarrasses, or intimidates another person is part of this law. Put-downs, discriminatory speech, racist language, derogatory comments, and even insults, practical jokes, anger or aggressive criticism may come under this mitzvah. The Rambam describes the mitzvah in the following way:

 "If a person has repented, don't say: "Remember how you used to act." If a person is a child of converts, one shouldn't remark: "Remember how your ancestors lived." If a convert comes to study the Torah, one should not tell him: "Should a mouth that ate meat from animals that were not ritually slaughtered and that were trefah come and study the Torah that was given by the Almighty?"
If a person was afflicted by illness and suffering or he is forced to bury his children, one should not speak to him in the manner that Job's friends addressed him Job 4:6-7: "Your fear of God was for your own security.... Can you recall anyone who was innocent who perished?" " (Rambam, Mishne Torah, Hilchot Mekhira 14:13-15)

Particular attention is paid by Maimonides to articulating embarrassing aspects or episodes of a person's past. He also specifies the prohibition of restricting a convert from fully participating in religious life on the basis of his past, and maybe more important, drawing attention to his status as a convert. Note the last example – someone is sick, and you suggest that in some manner they are personally spiritually at fault – THAT is abusive speech. We do not know God's ways. How dare we propose to blame the victim?

We have so many people in our world who walk around with scars received from careless words spoken by authority figures, teachers and Rabbis. Our language is so powerful. It can build people and destroy them. We would do well to heed our mode of speaking.

A 3rd type of Ona'ah (Ex. 22:20) is directed to the Ger – the convert to Judaism, or maybe even the non-Jew who lives in as a resident in a Jewish country (Ibn Ezra says it is a Ger Toshav). We have an extra instruction to treat outsiders, non-Jews or Jewish converts, with respect, and not to abuse or take advantage of them, financially or verbally. These people lack the societal confidence or family contacts that afford other people personal stature,. We must "remember that you were salves in Egypt."

How many people are aware that these are three Torah laws? How often these are disregarded. How relevant and crucial these laws of Ona'ah are in our contemporary reality!

Sit at your Shabbat table, read the Rambam with your family, and discuss how we can work harder on these laws, how to include people rather than exclude them. Let's work to be more compassionate

Shabbat shalom!