Wednesday, August 22, 2012

form over substance

The story is a simple one, and it is widely told and taught as an example of the profundity of Jewish law and ethics (Devarim Rabah, Parshat Eikev, Chapter 3).  The great tanna (mishnaic author), Shimon ben Shetach, purchased a donkey (in one version, his students purchased the donkey for him) from an Arab salesman in order to ease the burden of his physical labor. When the purchase arrived, he was surprised to discover that the donkey had a rather sophisticated sense of style; it was wearing a necklace containing a valuable precious stone suspended from its neck.  Shimon's students, overcome with joy, suggested that God himself had now blessed Shimon with wealth.  Life would get much easier for their teacher than they had ever imagined.

Only one problem - Shimon ben Shetach famously ordered the students to return the donkey, with one short and sweet retort.  "I purchased a donkey, not a precious gem."  As the story concludes, the students return the donkey to the Arab salesman, who declares, "Blessed is the Lord, God of Shimon ben Shetach."

Just a few weeks back, a third-party vendor mistakenly offered tickets to Israel on El Al Airlines for just $300.00.  This, for tickets that normally cost well in excess of $1,000.00.  Hysteria raged as friends contacted friends, Facebook and Twitter abuzz, so that people would have the opportunity to purchase tickets before the obvious mistake was corrected.

Many noble human beings led the way and declined the temptation to succumb to pure self-interest, either by declining to purchase the tickets or by voluntarily returning the tickets when they learned of the error.  Most others have not followed this path.

Now, the airline industry is famously ruthless, and I'm sure we all have our share of horror stories about how this or that particular airline ruthlessly ripped us off, resulting in ill-will and a host of negative feelings.  Trust me, I have my stories as well.  Still, the current case brings to the forefront a certain tension that deserves and demands to be studied:

The very reason we as Jews value the land of Israel so much is our religious/historical connection to the land of our forefathers and because of the divine imperative to live in our land to be a people uniquely righteous and just.  The whole point of having a land is that we're supposed to be a nation that goes above and beyond (no pun intended) to distance ourselves from dishonesty.  Certainly, Shimon ben Shetach understood the importance of yahsrus, acting in a moral and decent manner, especially when it comes to monetary arrangements.  He understood this even when dealing with an Arab merchant, someone who did not belong to his people.  A lot of ink has been spilled about the legal obligations of the purchasers in our case (see here for Rabbi Gil Student's analysis).  In a similar case, when the seller made an error, Shimon ben Shetach's inquiry was much simpler and easy to understand.

If we hope to reflect positively on our benevolent and loving creator, we'd best start not only to distance ourselves from the financial scandals that ruin our God's name, but to act morally and justly in the ambiguous and difficult cases as well.  Going to the Land of Israel by cheating El Al out of their due is a perversion of justice, and compromises the integrity of the very land we pine after.        

1 comment:

  1. I think the comparison is missing one key component. Imagine if in this case, the Arab salesman had been notified of the error, and was given the opportunity to take back the donkey with the stone and in return give the money back. The Arab thought about his reputation for a while, and decided that he did not want to upset his customers and said "you know what, you can keep the gem and the donkey". At that point, what would Shimon ben Shetach do? He may have ordered the same thing from his students, but he also may have realized that this was an opportunity for the Arab salesman to shine. It may have even been insulting to give it back once the salesman said not to.