Torah Economics

By Rabbi Dr. Hillel ben David (Greg Killian)

 


The following study is based on a lecture given by Rabbi Daniel Lapin[1] at the Ludwig von Mises Institute, Lou Church memorial lecture in religion and Economics. Rabbi Lapin’s lecture was titled:

 

What is Morally Right About Economic Freedom

 

Making money is a Torah virtue, it is inherently moral. Prospering is a virtue.

 

Why is it that Jews are disproportionately successful with money?

 

Mark Twain made this same observation in his essay, Concerning Jews:

 

"If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one percent of the human race. It suggests a nebulous dim puff of star dust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly the Jew ought hardly to be heard of, but he is heard of, has always been heard of. He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his commercial importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk…”

 

The reason Jews have excelled in the area of economics is because they have believed that making money is a good thing in and of itself. When you are making money you are doing something good. Philanthropy and tzedaka (charity – righteousness) do not have to be the goal. Making money is, in the end, good. Not doing tzedaka is reprehensible, but that does not detract from the fact that making money is good. For Jews especially, making money is a perfectly natural thing to do. How can this be?

 

Consider a man who knocks of people’s doors and offers to take away their unwanted items, their junk. If he pays a pittance for the goods, so much the better. In fact, businesses have sprouted up for the sole purpose of taking unwanted items from people. These businesses charge people good money to take unwanted items. Whether the business is the city trash collector, or a junk hauler, they both charge money to remove a man’s junk. Now if one could purchase one man’s junk and fix it up and sell it to another man for a good price, then all are extremely satisfied with this arrangement. The one has his junk removed without cost or for a small profit, and the other has obtained a needed item for a good price. The end result is two happy customers and a junk dealer who has made a profit.[2] The whole world is better off because of this transaction. By engaging in this sort of commerce we are doing something good for people. People welcome such junk dealers. When we do these types of transactions everyone is happy with the outcome. The ability to make multiple people happy is at the root of the Torah. Thus making money is a good thing in, and of, itself!

 

In Hebrew, and in English, we use the same word to characterize good business dealings and our worship of HaShem. We call it avodah, or service. Those who get good service are glad. Whether they are HaShem or men. Providing good service is what the Torah is all about. When we please the men whom HaShem made, then we are also pleasing HaShem! When are children treat their siblings well, then the parents are extremely happy. In the same way, when HaShem sees his children treating each other well, then He is extremely happy. To make HaShem happy, all we have to do is make people happy when we make money.

 

Does it matter whether we are serving HaShem’s children with a profit motive? Absolutely not! In fact, in both the Torah and in common wisdom we find that actions are more important than intentions. Obeying HaShem for the wrong reason is certainly better than not obeying Him at all. In the same way, if we serve people with a profit motive we still serve people. Now clearly kavanah, or intent, is important. Never the less, obedience is more important. Consider a child who obeys his parents with a bad attitude. While the parents would prefer a good attitude, they are never the less glad that the child obeyed. Since only HaShem understands the motives of our hearts, it is impossible for us to judge this aspect. In fact, a Jewish court looks for the actions and words, to discern intent. Actions speak louder than words and actions trump intention. The fact that a waiter provides good service to his customers is appreciated, despite the fact that he is looking for a good tip.

 

The process of building good economic relationships is integral to building good relationships between human beings. The world was created for the purpose of building bonds and relationships. Consider the elements on the periodic chart. As important as those elements are, the compounds that are produced from those elements are infinitely more important. The air we breathe is a mixture. Water is a mixture. As nice as iron is, steel is ever so much more useful.

 

Salt, for example, is composed of sodium (toxic) and chlorine (toxic). Yet the result graces nearly every dinner table in the world. With the alchemy of relationships, even toxic substances become tov, beneficial. In the same way, we take a toxic male and marry him to a toxic female and the relationship is called love, and the whole world is better off because of this relationship. In fact, Bereshit (Genesis) describes the creation as good except for one exception. The Torah tells us that it is not good for man to be alone. Man needs a relationship with a woman. Bonding and connectivity are what make the world go around.

 

Does HaShem want us to be rich? While His desire in inscrutable, it is quite clear that He wants us to be obsessively preoccupied with the need and desires of other people. Whether they are your clients or your customers; whether they are your boss or your employees. No matter what the relationship, HaShem warns us to be concerned with the needs of others. When we do this, prosperity and wealth are the natural outcome. To put it another way, if we want to become wealthy, all we have to do is become obsessively preoccupied with the needs of others. If we build buggy whips whilst the world is driving automobiles, then we will never meet the desires of others and we will never make a profit. We make profit when we sell what others want. The more we understand the needs and desires of the world and obsess with how to meet those needs and desires, the more we will become wealthy. It is interesting that the more we do what we want to do, the more poverty stricken we become. It is only when we turn outward to the desires of others that we can become wealthy.

 

Many have said that the most important occupation is the occupation that you enjoy. This is not the Torah perspective. The Torah perspective is to choose an occupation that meets the needs of others. This is the only way to have success in life because we will be serving HaShem in the process. Prosperity is the result of building relationships by meeting the needs of others.

 

The Torah is full of contracts (covenants) because contracts allow relationships to flower. The contract that Yaaqov made with Esav regarding the birthright was a contract that allowed the Jewish people to become a nation of priests.

 

Bereshit (Genesis) 25:30-33 And Esau said to Jacob, Feed me, I pray thee, with that same red pottage; for I am faint: therefore was his name called Edom. 31  And Jacob said, Sell me this day thy birthright. 32  And Esau said, Behold, I am at the point to die: and what profit shall this birthright do to me? 33  And Jacob said, Swear to me this day; and he sware unto him: and he sold his birthright unto Jacob.

 

Shemot (Exodus) 19:6 And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel.

 

A profit motive is what allowed Joseph to survive his encounter with his brothers at Shechem.

 

Bereshit (Genesis) 37:26-27 And Judah said unto his brethren: ‘What profit is it if we slay our brother and conceal his blood? 27  Come, and let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him; for he is our brother, our flesh.’ And his brethren hearkened unto him.

 

Yehuda asked, “what profit do we get by killing the boy? Come let us sell him instead”. Thus Joseph will succinctly state that their intention to do evil was used by HaShem to do good.

 

Bereshit (Genesis) 50:19-20 And Joseph said unto them, Fear not: for am I in the place of God? 20  But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive.

 

This good came about only because of a motive for profit. Consider the alternative: Joseph is dead and the Jewish people all starve to death. Where is the good in that? Even Joseph greatly benefited from this transaction. Thus the whole world benefited from the profit motive of Joseph’s ten brothers.

 

When Joseph’s ten brothers encountered Joseph in Egypt he accused them of spying.

 

Bereshit (Genesis) 42:9  And Joseph remembered the dreams which he dreamed of them, and said unto them, Ye are spies; to see the nakedness of the land ye are come.

 

Additionally, he had their money returned to them in the top of their sacks of grain.

 

Bereshit (Genesis) 42:35 And it came to pass as they emptied their sacks, that, behold, every man’s bundle of money was in his sack: and when both they and their father saw the bundles of money, they were afraid.

 

When they saw the money they were terrified because they imagined that they would be accused of theft. Yet Joseph’s intention was to teach them that relationships were more important than money. The brothers thought that squandering their relationship with Joseph to produce a profit was a good thing. Joseph’s message was just the opposite. His message was that profit comes from good relationships, not the other way around. It is not about money, it is about relationships.

 

Relationships and profit go hand in hand with the uniqueness of each individual. If we were all clones we would find it very hard to meet the needs of others. What we have is what they have. There is no profit in have each individual being a clone. Having different desires allows commerce. If no one wants to get rid of his junk, then there can be no sale of that junk. If everyone desires the same junk, then there is no opportunity for commerce. Being created in the image of God makes us unique.

 

While most economists would tend to call us consumers, in reality we are actually producers. If everything were consumed there would be no museums, buildings, roads, or parks. We produce! When we create wealth we acknowledge the uniqueness of the individual. When a government attempts to equalize its citizens, then they will necessarily produce poverty. The more we are alike the more commerce fails. It is our uniqueness that allows commerce to thrive. Thus the more freedom (uniqueness) that exists in the world, the greater the prosperity of the world. The more we are free to pursue our own desires, the more we allow the world to prosper.

 

Socialism destroys uniqueness. Consider government housing, public transportation, and confiscatory taxation. These socialist tools are all designed to destroy our uniqueness and in the process doom us to poverty. We must produce wealth, not merely move it around.

 

At the tower of Babel the goal was to make bricks, not to make a tower. Notice that bricks come first followed by what was to be done with the bricks:

 

Bereshit Genesis) 11:1-4 And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech. 2  And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there. 3  And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them throughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for morter. 4  And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.

 

Bricks were the goal! That is why the people were FIRST encouraged to make bricks, then to build a city and a tower. Bricks are made by man and are all identical. Stones are made by HaShem and each is unique. The goal of Babel was to make all individuals the same, to destroy their uniqueness, to make bricks. One of the reasons that HaShem confused the languages at Babel was to make it very difficult to all be alike.

 

The Torah records that bricks were used only in two regards: The tower of Babel and the building of Egypt by the Israelites. As the Israelites were enslaved, so too were the people of Babel. As the people at Babel received no pay for their service, so too were the Israelites deprived of their pay.

 

We had two economic models: The Abrahamic model and the Nimrod model. The Abrahamic model is the basis for the economy of the western world. This model is based on giving, not on taking. Abraham wanted to give to and to serve other human beings. This is the source of the strength of the Abrahamic model. Nimrod’s model was based on taking from people and making them all the same.

 

The free market system is propped up by a spiritual system.

 

Long term business relationships can not endure if we ‘rip people off’. Bad business dealings do not make for long term business relationships.

 

We are predominately spiritual creatures with a subordinate physical aspect. We are souls with a body. This is an important mental perspective. We must focus on the spiritual and use the physical to accomplish the spiritual goals. We must use our minds to impact our bodies. If we believe that something can be done, then it can be done. Nothing stands in the way of desire, nothing! The only thing that makes us different from robots is our desire. Robots do not have any desires.

 

* * *

The Hebrew word for wealth is: עשר.

The Hebrew word for charity is: עשר.

 

Now, because the same Hebrew word is used for both concepts, we know that these two concepts are intimately related. Thus we understand that the act of giving charity results in wealth. Note the charity comes first and the wealth follows.

 

* * *

 

This study was written by

Rabbi Dr. Hillel ben David (Greg Killian),

based on a lecture given by

Rabbi Daniel Lapin.

Comments may be submitted to:

 

Rabbi Dr. Greg Killian

4544 Highline Drive SE

Olympia, WA 98501

 

Internet address:  gkilli@aol.com

Web page:  http://www.betemunah.org/

 

(360) 918-2905

 

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Send comments to Greg Killian at his email address: gkilli@aol.com

 



[1] “Thou shalt Prosper” is Rabbi Lapin’s book.

[2] New businesses have sprung up just to bring those with junk together with those who want such junk. Can you say ‘EBay’?