May 3, 2001
Parashat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim (Leviticus 16:1 - 20:27)
Honesty, morality and ethical behavior -- these are the calling cards of Leviticus, and they are the centerpieces of Jewish behavior and identity. Amongst the mitzvot enumerated in Leviticus 19 (known by some scholars as the "Holiness Code") are respect for parents, charity for the poor, prohibitions against stealing and lying, a reminder to pay an employee's wages on time, the moral obligation not to take advantage of the deaf or blind, honesty and fairness in justice, prohibitions against holding grudges or exacting revenge, and the famous mitzvah to "love your neighbor as yourself."
This impressive list of ethical mitzvot concludes with an injunction to treat the stranger in our midst with fairness, and that when we conduct our business, our "weights and measures shall be accurate."
Throughout this "Holiness Code" -- so-called because the section begins with "Kedoshim Tiheyu" ("You shall be holy") -- the Torah reminds us that it is every Jewish person's obligation and responsibility to behave according to these ethical norms and standards because God has asked this of us.
Every few verses, one finds the conclusion "I am the Lord Your God" (seven times) or the abbreviated "I am the Lord" (seven times). A total of 14 different reminders that these mitzvot are not simply ethical norms of human behavior, but they are the basis of a religious code of conduct originating from God.
For the last mitzvah in this section, the obligation to maintain fair weights and measures in business (a technical term for "honesty in business"), the Torah also reminds us that the reason why we must observe this mitzvah is because it is God's will. But instead of using the same formulations it did the previous 14 times, the Torah chooses a specific reasoning: "I am the Lord your God who brought you forth from the land of Egypt."
The commentaries notice this peculiarity, wondering what specific connection exists between honesty in business and the Exodus from Egypt. Rashi, the most famous of Biblical commentators, comments that God took us out of Egypt on the condition that we would behave fairly and honestly in our business dealings.
The modern Israeli "Da'at Mikra" commentary expands on Rashi's teaching by saying that the commandment to be fair in business comes to protect the most vulnerable members of society -- the elderly, the proselyte and the foreigner. Because of their weak status in society, all of these individuals are vulnerable to being cheated in business. The Jewish people, who were slaves in Egypt and whose status in society as slaves was similar to that of elderly, proselytes and foreigners, should have the highest sensitivity towards these individuals, because we know what it was like to be mistreated by society. It is the specific experience of slavery in Egypt that strengthens our understanding of the importance of justice, righteous and ethical behavior and having mercy on others. Therefore, the Torah commands us to behave honestly in business and reminds us that the reason we as Jews must especially behave honestly in our business dealings is because we experienced the bitterness of slavery in Egypt, and God then took us out from slavery to freedom so that we might live ethically.
I wonder what modern archaeologists have to say about that?