My goal in this series has been to see unexpected places where the Torah itself tells us the Exodus needs to play a shaping role in our experience of the religion. This week’s commandments show that even our monetary morality is supposed to be built on our experience of Hashem during the Exodus.
The Judgment of Weights and Measures
In Vayikra 19;35, the Torah warns against perverting justice in weights and measurements, warns us to have accurate scales, and reminds us that Hashem is commanding this, Who took us out of Egypt. The smaller problem with the sequence is that the Torah warned us about perverting justice, with the same phrase, eighteen verses earlier. Rashi explains the implication, that the act of weighing or measuring, in a private business transaction, carries the same responsibility as judging. I think this is because judges’ main job is keeping society going by ensuring a fair playing field; we do the same each time we take an action that could weaken trust and faith in the fairness of that playing field.
With responsibility comes responsibility. Just as judges are punished for failing to do their job, we would earn the same opprobrium should we willfully fail to do our job. Rashi tells us that we, too, would make ourselves disgusting and an abomination, cut off from closeness with Hashem by cheating with our measurements. In addition, just as judges cause social catastrophes—defile the Land, sacrilege the Name, banish the Divine Presence from among us, lead to losses in war and to exile—we contribute to such outcomes with improper weights and measures. Justice and judgment isn’t about courts, it’s about making sure society operates the way it should.
All that stands on its own. The obligation to keep good weights and measures is logical and rational, adopted by all societies, not apparently needing further support. Why connect it to the Exodus?
R. Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg in HaKetav ve-ha-Kabbalah suggests that a danger of rational obligations such as weights and measures is that we might assume we follow the laws because they are sensible. If we did, we would be worshipping our rationality instead of Hashem. To emphasize that Hashem’s command must be the bottom line of all observance, Hashem mentions the Exodus.
Rashi captures much of that with three words, על מנת כן, on this condition. Hashem is reminding us that observance (each observance, not overall observance) was a condition of our leaving Egypt. Should we fail to keep this law alone, we would be betraying the purpose that freed us from Egypt.
A More Specific Link
Rashi also references Baba Metsia 61b, where Rava asks why various mitzvot mention the Exodus, including tzitzit, bugs (which we saw last week), interest (below), and weights and measures? His answer, for each, is a variant of the idea that Hashem Who differentiated the first-born from the not (which wasn’t easy in Egypt, where promiscuous women might give birth to several first-born, and presumed first-born might not be) would differentiate those who transgress these commandments, thinking they can hide their transgression.
The Gemara says people would cheat their weights by dipping them in salt, which either made them heavier (Rashba) or lighter (Rashi). Whichever it is, all agree that this was a situation where one person could defraud another without the victim realizing it; the verse reminds us that Hashem sees and knows all (Meiri expands this to any area where we can cheat without the other realizing it).
Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 231 puts it this way: cheating in this area is as if the person denies the Exodus (a phrasing he may have taken from a Gemara about interest, see below). Because truly acknowledging the Exodus, apparently, obligates us to remember that Hashem demonstrated His awareness of all that happens in this world, even that which happens in our most private places and moments. Any hidden cheating repudiates what we were supposed to know ever since we left Egypt.
In Vayikra 25;38, the Torah similarly closes its prohibition against taking interest from fellow Jews by reminding us of Hashem’s having taken us out of Egypt. Rava here answers that just as Hashem differentiated between first born and not, Hashem will differentiate between those who pretend they are lending a non-Jew’s money and those who don’t. The specifics of that aren’t my topic—there is a whole literature about the ways in which a Jew can or cannot use a non-Jew’s money to lend at interest, and also for how a Jew can or cannot give money to a non-Jew to lend at interest—but it stresses a similar point to what we saw above, that we have to be aware of Hashem especially at those moments when no one else will catch us.
R. Hirsch (here; he says something similar about weights and measures) reads this as Hashem warning us that our right to our own society depends on submitting ourselves to the discipline of Hashem’s laws and rules. If we refrain from taking prohibited interest, we are announcing our recognition that our money and our society comes from Hashem.
Taking Interest as Heresy
The Gemara already reflects that idea. R. Yose, Baba Metsia 71a, notes the irony of people who write out loan agreements that incorporate impermissible interest. These are people who would fight to the death to protest being called an evildoer, but then publicly summon witnesses, a scribe, a quill, and ink to announce that they have denied God.
Much as we might dismiss that as hyperbole, Rambam records it in Laws of Lenders and Borrowers 4;7, although he limits it to their having denied the Exodus, not Hashem in general. Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 160;2 includes both, that it is as if the person has denied the Exodus and the God of Israel.
I could grant that this includes an element of the homiletical, but I still find it remarkable that the Gemara is so clear that public violation of at least certain commandments inherently and implicitly denies Hashem and the Exodus. Food for thought as we turn to another mitzvah that might seem logical and yet that the Torah assigns a greater significance.
Harvest Gifts for the Poor
In Devarim 24;22, the Torah closes a listing of the obligations we bear to the poor during the harvest by saying that we have to remember that we were slaves in Egypt, and that is why Hashem is commanding us to do this—leave a part of our fields unharvested, and also leaving behind parts of the field, orchard, or vineyard that we forgot to harvest as we were going by.
This obviously helps set up some sort of social safety net, as the story of Ruth reminds us, although it doesn’t come close to solving the issue of poverty. It might be as much about helping the poor feel part of the national excitement around harvest time as about the economic benefit they received.
Either way, the Torah isn’t satisfied with our giving these gifts, the Torah wants us to know that we give them as part of remembering that we were slaves in Egypt. Here, the connection to slavery seems even less clear than our previous two examples. If my suggestion in the previous paragraph works, we might say that this is about remembering when we were all excluded from society, and we have to make sure that the underclass (which may be less about poverty than social exclusion) is included.
Egypt Teaches the Source of All Wealth
That’s not how the commentaries I found read it, however. Sforno suggests that as slaves we were required to follow the harvesters to collect our food. It’s an interesting idea, but not one for which I know any sources—did the Egyptians let the Jews stop their other labors during harvest season? Would they have sacrificed days of slave labor for this inefficient way of getting them their food?
Keli Yakar’s different answer seems to build off the issues in his time, but offer a nugget for us as well. He was focused on people who claimed they could not give to the poor because they had to leave an inheritance for their children. It’s not exactly clear what he objected to, but it seems to me that he felt that people were amassing great fortunes instead of giving to the poor, all in the name of financial prudence (if it wasn’t true of Keli Yakar’s time, I have met many wealthy people who still feel pressure to amass more. If that got in the way of giving to the poor, it would explain the comment).
He suggests that our worry about how our descendants will support themselves is misplaced, since we know that Hashem is the one who grants wealth. We know that because we were once slaves in Egypt and here we are now, trying to figure out our estate planning, and neglecting to give to the poor in the name of that!
For him, in other words, both allowing the poor to glean and giving them money we might have stashed for our heirs is a way to affirm our belief that Hashem is the source of all wealth. Which is only convincing if we believe that Hashem is the source of all wealth.
Taken together, these three mitzvot push ever closer to a complete understanding of what the Torah told us to use the Exodus to teach us. For this week, that was realizing that money isn’t only about money, it’s about our awareness of Hashem’s involvement with the world and, perhaps, how Hashem is the real source of all money, a belief that, if taken seriously, would likely shape our financial transactions beyond only those involving weights and measures, interest, and the agricultural gleanings the Torah gave the poor.