Our parashah contains a rather vague and general prohibition against mistreating other people: “Do not wrong one another, but fear your God, for I the Lord am your God” (Leviticus 25:17).
Laws of the jubilee year
This verse appears immediately after the laws governing the jubilee year, which takes place every fifty years in the land of Israel. The Torah teaches that anyone who sells land must adjust the price of the land based on the number of years that remain in the jubilee cycle, before the fiftieth year comes and the land is restored to its original owners.
The Talmud, in considering the injunction not to wrong one another as it appears in this context, offers insight into the various ways we hurt and harm one another, and how we might be more honest and honorable instead.
At first the Talmud assumes that the Torah’s injunction not to wrong one another relates to financial exploitation. After all, we have just read about the appropriate way to price land during the jubilee cycle.
But as the rabbis note, the Torah stated just three verses earlier, “When you sell property to your neighbor, or buy from your neighbor, you shall not wrong one another” (Leviticus 25:14). Surely the Torah would not repeat the same injunction twice, and thus our verse—verse 17—must refer to some other kind of mistreatment.
The rabbis explain that our verse refers to verbal wronging, because “just as there is exploitation in buying and selling, so too is there exploitation in statements” (M. Bava Metzia 4:10).
We can cheat and defraud another person financially, but we can also do so verbally. The Mishnah offers two examples of verbal mistreatment, and in the long Talmudic passage that follows (Bava Metzia 58b-59b), the rabbis offer several examples and illustrations of each kind of behavior and its theological ramifications.
The first kind of verbal mistreatment mentioned in the Mishnah is deception.
The rabbis teach that a person may not enter a store with no intention of buying anything and nonetheless say to the store owner, “How much does this cost?” To ask such a question raises the seller’s hope of making a sale. Moreover, as the Meiri explains, if anyone else were in the store at the time, he or she might assume that the item is not worth its price, and thus the merchandise would become devalued in the eyes of potential customers.
Rabbi Yehuda, in commenting on this Mishnah, notes that it is not even appropriate to “window shop” when a person has no money to make a purchase, because it is not fair to the seller who is displaying his wares in the hope of making a profit.
Finally, the Talmud offers an additional example of deception, explaining that if donkey drivers ask a person if they might purchase his grain and he has none, he may not refer the donkey drivers to someone else if he knows that other person does not have grain for sale. It’s always nice to refer someone elsewhere when we turn them down, but it must be a legitimate referral.
The Talmud notes that all these kinds of deception can take place without anyone else ever knowing that we are hurting another person willfully. After all, any outside observer might think that perhaps we really were considering buying that teddy bear in the store window. And perhaps we really thought our fellow grain seller (or babysitter or lawyer or substitute teacher) would be able to help out in our stead.
Deception is a matter of the heart
Only we know the truth, which is why this form of deception is so tempting, and so treacherous.
As the Talmud puts it, “the matter is given over to the heart,” since only we know the true intentions of our hearts.
The Talmud explains that it is for this reason that our verse about verbal mistreatment reads, “Do not wrong one another, but fear your God, for I the Lord am your God.” God knows the true intentions of our hearts and thus in matters that are “given over to the heart,” only the fear of God will ensure that we act appropriately.
The second kind of verbal mistreatment mentioned in the Mishnah is shaming.
The rabbis teach that if a person is a Ba’al Teshuva—a penitent—it is forbidden to remind him of his past behavior, and if he is the child of converts, it is forbidden to remind him of his ancestors’ behavior.
The Talmud adds that if a convert comes to learn Torah, it is forbidden to make him feel inadequate by referring to his past: “What, you want to learn Torah? Does the mouth that ate non-kosher meat and repugnant creepy-crawly animals wish to study Torah that was stated from the mouth of the Almighty?”
When we shame a person in such a way, we prevent them from being able to reinvent themselves through the act of repentance.
King David and other biblical sources
The rabbis illustrate this injunction by means of a story about King David, a highly flawed leader who nonetheless—at least in the rabbinic imagination—repents.
The rabbis imagine King David studying in the Beit Midrash with the rabbis and learning the laws of leprous sores and corpse impurity when suddenly, in a total non sequitur, the rabbis turn to David and ask, “If one engages in intercourse with a married woman, which form of the death penalty does he get?” In this imagined scenario, the rabbis are of course shaming David for sleeping with Batsheva, the wife of Uriah.
But fortunately David has a witty comeback prepared: “One who engages in intercourse with a married woman is executed by strangulation, but he still has a share in the World to Come. But one who shames another person in public has no share in the World to Come.” As David reminds the rabbis, their act of verbal shaming is even more heinous than the sin he committed with Batsheva.
The rabbis add that shaming another person may also have nothing to do with that person’s past, but rather with the person’s present situation.
They explain that if a person is struck by terrible misfortune—if he is terribly ill, or forced to bury his children—then one may not speak to him in the way that Job’s friends spoke to Job, telling him that he is being punished for his sins. The appropriate response to another person’s distress is not to try to play God and judge that person, but rather to sit with them in their sorrow and offer the comfort that comes from genuine empathy and concern.
The egregiousness of shaming
Shaming is so egregious, say the rabbis, that it is tantamount to murder: “Anyone who shames another person in public—it is as if he has spilled that person’s blood” (Bava Metzia 58b). When we shame someone else, we cause all the blood to drain from their faces—as if we have spilled their blood.
Just as only God can know whether we willfully deceive another person, only God is receptive at all times to the tears of the humiliated.
The rabbis explain, amidst their discussion of shaming, that “even though the gates of prayer are locked, the gates of tears are never locked” (Bava Metzia 59a). It is as if tears have the power to grease the hinges of the heavenly gates, allowing them to swing open.
God knows the true intentions of our hearts, and God is intimately familiar with the tears of the distressed.
While we may be able to deceive ourselves, there is no deceiving God.
See more: Parashat Behar
Originally posted as part of the Conservative Yeshiva at the Fuchsberg Jerusalem Center’s Torah Sparks. Support Torah learning from the Fuchsberg Jerusalem Center/Conservative Yeshiva for leaders and seekers around the world here.