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12/03/2020 04:47:53 PM


Chaim Strauchler

My Pesach Bulletin article for 5780. 

The phone rang. It was just before six on a dark February morning. I picked up the phone quickly, to prevent it from waking the entire house. After a moment of silence, an automated voice informed me that Visa was calling. A suspicious $1400 charge for gift cards had appeared on my account. The automated voice instructed me to push one, if I had authorized the purchase and two if I did not. I pushed two and the automated voice asked me to wait for a fraud specialist. An accented female voice asked me for my name. I explained that I was not making the call and would therefore not be sharing any personal information. The voice said that I had pushed two and should therefore share my name if I wanted the company’s help in reversing the charges. Upon my asking that the “company” say my name, the line went dead. The fraud specialist was a real fraud specialist; that day, a scammer had attempted to exploit my first wakeful moments.

Fraud has a long history among the human species. From the outset of our people’s history, God has called upon us to stand against such injustice. God informs Avraham of Sodom’s imminent destruction, “For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the LORD by doing what is just and right…” (Genesis 18:19). Yet, the story of Jewish ethics becomes more muddled as the Jewish people prepared for the first Pesach in Egypt. God instructed us to borrow items from our Egyptian neighbours without any intention of returning them, “Tell the people to borrow, each man from his neighbor and each woman from hers, objects of silver and gold” (Exodus 11:2). Did God ask us to engage in fraud? Why does this mundane detail receive so much attention, appearing two additional times in the Exodus story (3:21-22; 12:35-36)?

The classic commentators (11:2) address this problem. Rashbam argues that the Jews did not borrow from their neighbours, rather they asked for outright gifts. Chizkuni explains that the Jews upon leaving Egypt traded these borrowed items for the property they had owned (and left behind) in Egypt, “It was no more than a fair exchange, seeing that the Israelites left behind their houses and their fields, for which they received no compensation.”

Rabbenu Chananel makes a broader argument about the ethics behind this subterfuge. He justifies the obtaining of these materials from the Egyptians as a form of restitution, “This did not involve any misrepresentation on the part of God, the Egyptians being perfectly aware that nothing they would give their Israelite neighbours could even remotely compensate them for the wages these people had never received during all these years. In that connection, consider that a Jewish servant (for whose services his master paid six years’ wages in advance to the servant’s creditor) at the end of his 6 years of service must be given an ex gratia payment by his master so that he can establish himself economically. (Deuteronomy 15,13-14). How much more so would the Israelites be entitled at this time to a small installment of all the money owed them for 210 years of slave labour!” The Jews were not violating any moral principle; they were asserting their just claims thereby righting a long-standing injustice.

Why do people cheat? They rarely do so to repair an injustice, as Rabbenu Chananel argues the Jews did in Egypt. Rather, such fraud emerges from a system like that of Egyptian slavery, which normalizes injustice. People “wring their bread from the sweat of other men's faces” (to quote from Lincoln’s second inaugural); because they believe it is (in some way) just how the world works.

Since November of last year, a major cheating scandal has overwhelmed Major League Baseball. The Houston Astros engaged in sign stealing, communicating to their batters when the upcoming pitch would be an off-speed pitch by banging on a garbage can from just within the dugout.

Craig Calcaterra wrote of the fraud, “The Astros’ cheating… affected the outcome of baseball games. It affected the outcome of series. It affected the outcome of postseasons. It affected the individual statistics of players which, in turn affected, positively and negatively, their incomes. It struck a blow to the very basis of competitive sports, which is the notion that the competitions are inherently fair ones.”

Cheating compromises the integrity of baseball. It is from the integrity of the game that all players and team officials derive their income. On some level, the cheaters are ultimately stealing from themselves and harming their own long-term interests. Why would they do so? Cheaters imagine themselves to be invulnerable; they see short-term incentives with little or no long-term accountability. Yet, accountability does inevitably come.

Cheating compromises the integrity of society. Fraud (including Egyptian slavery) is not merely a crime against its victims; it is a crime against the place of justice in God’s world. If allowed to continue fraud strikes a blow against the very basis of markets and the social cohesion upon which society rests. If enough cheating goes on in the playground, children eventually take their marbles and themselves out of the game.

The Exodus story is not only evidence to God’s enduring love of the Jewish people; it is also proof of God’s commitment to the justice upon which society stands. As the Torah says, “Against all gods of Egypt, I will execute judgments” (12:12). While the arguments of Chizkuni and Rabbenu Chananel hold much weight from the perspective of the Jewish people, the individual Egyptian (defrauded of his or her gold and silver) probably felt differently. “Borrowing” these materials allows accountability to trickle down from Pharaoh to the average Egyptian for the fraud that is slavery. The price of slavery descended upon all who benefited from its existence. In executing what to the Egyptian eyes was certainly an injustice, the Jewish people were asserting a different system of right and wrong. They privileged God’s moral perspective. In laying claim to these items, the Jew asserted independence not just from the master’s whip but also from his law book. For this reason, the story of borrowed materials is an essential part of the Exodus story.

I wonder about the self-justifications that the woman, who sought to steal my personal information, makes. What does the workspace, from which she made that call, look like? Who are the other people in that room making similar calls? Do they see their “work” as a job like any other job, “offshoring” any moral responsibility onto their employers or the business culture that they inhabit? Do they ever think about how their work affects the lives on the other end of the line?

These questions are not only for “them;” they are also for us. Rabbis speak a lot about how we live our private lives – asking us to act honestly in our personal conduct and charitably in our care for our neighbour. Rarely, if ever, do they speak about the effects of our work on society and the outcomes of our corporate lives upon the marketplace. When we subscribe to Milton Freedom’s maxim, “The social responsibility of business is to increase profits,” what other responsibilities, to God and to man, are we laying aside? These issues are worth pursuing – especially when we celebrate the moral independence, that God gave us when freeing us from Egyptian bondage.

Alasdair MacIntyre, in his magnum opus After Virtue, speaks of managerial culture and its expulsion of moral thinking: “The manager represents in his character the obliteration of the distinction between manipulative and non-manipulative social relations…. The manager treats ends as given, as outside his scope; his concern is with technique, with effectiveness in transforming raw material into final products, unskilled labor into skilled labor, investment into profits. Managers, [in their role as managers, do not and are not able] to engage in moral debate” (30). We inhabit this managerial culture. Rabbis and synagogues are not exempt. It behooves us to remove these managerial blinders and engage in moral debate. We must ask ourselves about morality in all aspects of our lives. What do our life-activities really do to our world? If we are unsatisfied with the answer, may we readjust our lives to more fully live the Torah’s morality and its freedom.

Mon, 15 July 2024 9 Tammuz 5784