Do you ever fool yourself? The answer is likely yes because we all do. Every time you something wrong and find a circuitous argument to justify your behavior, you fool yourself.
The Torah forbids defrauding others in business. When you sell or buy from your fellow, do not wrong him. If we know the true value of an item and sell it for more or buy it for less, we engage in fraud. We must engage in business honestly even if it costs us.
Ill-begotten gains don’t benefit us because they don’t get us ahead; they only slow us down. You will stay awake at night worrying that the person you defrauded will wise up to it and sue you. Perhaps he will come back at you and defraud you another way. You will worry that others will learn of your business practice and shun you. Or worse, they will feel free to defraud you.
Even if you aren’t the kind of person to lose sleep over such things, ill begotten gains will not bring blessing. Ill begotten gain bring illness. As one rabbi wrote, I have observed many who have defrauded others and died penniless. I have also observed many who were punctilious about returning money they received in error, and they died wealthy.
The Torah always drills down to the psychology of sin. It is not sufficient to tell people not to commit fraud because rarely does a fraudster acknowledge his wrongdoing. No one likes to look in the mirror and see a fraudster, so we tend to justify our behavior. We convince ourselves that we have committed without being fraudulent. the Torah addresses these justifications so that we can recognize them and avoid them.
The Torah says, “do not defraud your brother.” Why does the Torah refer to our victim as our brother? It is true that though it is forbidden to defraud any person, the specifics of these laws are only binding on Jews. It is possible that the Torah intends to tell us that these laws are only binding on Jews. But this can’t be the entire reason because the fact is that we are forbidden to defraud anyone, Jew, or non-Jew.
One possible explanation is that with the words, “your brother,” the Torah drills down to the psychology of fraud. When we defraud another, we justify it by thinking that if he had the chance, he would defraud me. The business world is cutthroat. If you want to get ahead, you need to take every advantage that comes your way. Because if you don’t take advantage of another, he will take advantage of you. He is “your brother” in fraud. Therefore, you are not a fraudster, you are only surviving. Moreover, he understands the rules of the game and would not resent it if he found out I defrauded him. He knows that, given the chance, he would do it too.
Another common form of justification is to demonize our victim. If anyone knew how horrible he really is, they would not bemoan the few dollars I stole from him. For example, when you take the extra shampoo bottle from the hotel, you remind yourself how much the hotel overcharges for every service and amenity. If you compare how much I stole from them to how much they stole from me, I would not need to feel ashamed.
The Torah implies this justification by describing the proper way to arrange a sale. The Torah uses the example of someone selling a field until the following jubilee. In Israel, ancestral fields could not be sold outright. They could only be leased until the following jubilee at which point all fields would revert to their ancestral owners.
The Torah says that if you sell a field, you must calculate the number of years left until the jubilee and formulate a price based on the years. If the price is a thousand dollars per year and there are ten years until the next jubilee, the correct price for the field is ten-thousand dollars.
Why does the Torah delineate this rather obvious formula? The Torah is drilling down to this alternate psychology of sin. If you but a field for ten years, you know that one of those years will be a sabbatical when planting and reaping are forbidden. You don’t want to pay for that year, but the Torah tells you to pay for each of the ten years.
You pay for the Sabbatical because the Torah tells you that if you leave the field fallow for the seventh year, the yield of the sixth year will make up for the missed crops of the seventh year. So, you might not collect a crop in the seventh year, but you pay for it in your lease because you will earn that money in the sixth year.
What if you buy the field from someone who doesn’t observe the sabbatical? You might be tempted to argue that since he wouldn’t leave his field fallow in the seventh year, he would not have received a double crop in the sixth year. His seventh-year-earnings would be ill-begotten because they would be forbidden earnings. Why then should you pay for that year? You would be tempted to reduce the overall cost of the field so that you don’t pay for the seventh year.
The Torah comes along and tells you that demonizing your fellow doesn’t whitewash your sin. Just because you have sinned against a sinner doesn’t mean you haven’t sinned. If you think this way, you fool yourself. As a Rabbi once said, you can’t fool another, you certainly can’t fool G-d. You can only fool yourself and why bother fooling a fool?
Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Pshischa once asked his Chasidim to define the essence of a Chassid. They replied that a Chassid is one who goes beyond the letter of the law. Rabbi Bunim observed, the Torah tells us not to fool others. If you are a Chasid, you don’t fool yourself.
The Talmud tells us that our evil inclination doesn’t entice us to commit a sin the first time it talks to us. It begins by suggesting a small infraction and every day it suggests a larger infraction until it suggests a full-on sin. If you think you haven’t sinned until the last time, you fool yourself. The first time you sinned, was the first time you let your evil inclination have his say.
You should have told him upfront that he has no bargaining power with you. The first time the evil inclination suggested that you do a Mitzvah, your response should have been, what incentivizes this suggestion? Your only interest is to convince me to take you seriously so that you can lead me to a life of sin. I won’t listen.
The evil inclination wants you to follow the Torah on his terms. Follow it when it makes sense, and not when it doesn’t make sense. This is a trap. Because every time the evil inclination will provide a rationale or justification for sin, you will need to answer it or succumb. Better to shut him down before the debate ever begins.
The day you open the door to the evil inclination is the day you begin to fool yourself. That is the first mistake. If you fool yourselves this once, you can guarantee it won’t be the last. You will continue to fool yourself until it is too late.
 Beer Hagolah, Choshen Mishpat 348.