Our Intention Matters
By Rabbi Erez Sherman
Someone once told me that their friend put on tefilin everyday. I was impressed by this man's religious habits until his friend told me, "He does this daily religious act to protect him from the bad business dealings he is about to take part in."
Each of us with an ethical soul is cognizant that this behavior is not the purpose behind the mitzvot in our tradition.
Yisrael Salanter, the 19th century Rabbinic scholar, known as the father of the Mussar, Jewish ethical living, teaches in his "Mussar Treatise" that one must practice good ethical conduct until it becomes second nature. That is the only way to stray from transgression.
Salanter points out that we act differently depending on the transgression we are about to commit. For kashrut, we have no qualms in asking an authority as to whether a food is fit to be eaten or not. Yet, when it comes to our behavior in business, we base these decisions solely upon our own thoughts and rarely look into our religious tradition. Thus, while our Torah clearly states, "You shall not oppress your fellow and you shall not steal," it becomes less in stature than "you shall not eat a non-kosher animal."
While the transgression of stealing is so serious, that on Yom Kippur, even death does not grant atonement, it is still not taken seriously in our business lives. Rabbi Salanter teaches, that if we study the laws of what is permitted and forbidden in the Torah, we should easily be able to relate that to the infringements of stealing. The power of Mussar, ethical study, slowly assists one to form new habits that take root in our soul. Eventually, there is no difference between eating a kosher animal or stealing. In essence, when one wears tefillin, it should not be to prevent one from stealing, but rather, it should celebrate the good business dealings that one will partake in.
We must only look at our ancestors to see how serious this transgression could be. The Talmudic Rabbi Mar Zutra once lodged at an inn, where during his stay, the owner's silver goblet disappeared. One day, Mar Zutra observed a guest who washed his hands and then wiped them dry on another person's coat. Mar Zutra immediately called the owner. "Arrest this man! He is the thief. I notice that he is careless with other people's belongings!!" The surprised thief confessed that he had indeed stolen the silver cup.
Our personal and professional lives go hand in hand. We cannot ask, "Were we good in business?" without asking, "Were we good to our family?" That is the essence of what JNET brings to a Jewish community; creating personal relationships through ethical understanding that in turn create business opportunities for each other. For it is then that our business transactions can turn us into an or lagoyim, a light unto the nations.