Tag Archives: ethics

The Command to Forget

Deuteronomy 24

19. When you cut down your harvest in your field, and have forgotten a sheaf in the field, you shall not go again to fetch it; it shall be for the stranger, for the orphan, and for the widow; that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.

20. When you beat your olive tree, you shall not go over the boughs again; it shall be for the stranger, for the orphan, and for the widow.

21. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not glean it afterward; it shall be for the stranger, for the orphan, and for the widow.

22. And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I command you to do this thing.

These gifts to the poor are one key example of helping those in need. While beneficial to the poor, one can certainly argue that what is left behind is not enough to actually sustain the needy. A number of commentaries suggest that the primary purpose of these commandments is to build the moral personality of the owner of the field who must understand there are limits even to his/her ownership of the property. The poor also have a claim to it, albeit limited to certain categories. God is after all, the true owner of the field.

The forgotten sheaf which must be left for the poor is an odd example of a commandment to fulfill. There can be no intent here by definition, the sheaf was forgotten. I am forbidden to return to harvest it. It must remain forgotten. In a religion in which memory is so foundational, and it is precisely because we are commanded to remember we were slaves in Egypt, that when it comes to sheaves in the field, I must truly learn how to forget.

As we struggle in Elul to honestly look at ourselves and begin to reconcile with those we have hurt, we must first remember where we erred with others and with God. With repentance and forgiveness must then come a form of forgetting as we begin the new year.  

For a full discussion, please see Nehama Leibowitz Studies in Deuteronomy  pp 243-249.

Posted on August 30, 2012

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Why Bernie Madoff Didn’t Lurk in Dark Alleys

We all know that one of the Ten Commandments is “Don’t steal.” But it’s also hard for us to imagine Bernie Madoff or Jeffrey Skilling in a hooded sweatshirt in a darkened alley mugging a little old lady. And yet clearly, Madoff and Skilling violated that two-word, easy-to-understand commandment. So we have to ask: how in the world were they able to justify it?

A large part of that justification is because different forms of stealing have different “feels” to them. Physically taking money from another person feels more violent, more immediate, and less justifiable of an action. “Cooking the books,” however, can easily feel explainable by the perpetrator. It’s pretty easy to follow the commandment “Don’t steal” if it simply means, “Don’t go around robbing people in the middle of the night.” But Skilling and Madoff did steal – and stole significantly more money than all the armed robbers in America combined.

In fact, when people don’t deal in cash directly, they actually are able to rationalize their actions, and thus end up stealing significantly more money from people.

Cash Keeps Us (More) Honest

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely ran a fascinating study in the MIT dorm rooms to examine what might allow people to steal without feeling all that guilty about it. At first, he put six Coke cans in a communal refrigerator. Within three days, all six cans were gone. No doubt, people thought, “No one will notice, and hey – free Coke!”

He then put six one-dollar bills on a plate in the refrigerator. They were left totally untouched.

Why? As Ariely explains:

When we look at the world around us, much of the dishonesty we see involves cheating that is one step removed from cash. Companies cheat with their accounting practices; executives cheat by using backdated stock options; lobbyists cheat by underwriting parties for politicians; drug companies cheat by sending doctors and their wives off on posh vacations. To be sure, these people don’t cheat with cold, hard cash (except occasionally). And that’s my point: cheating is a lot easier when it’s a step removed from money. (Ariely, Predictably Irrational, 218-219)

There seems to be a psychological block that prevents most of us from simply forcibly taking cash from people, but allows us to rationalize small falsifications that ultimately end up being the same thing as stealing. And that is why, in fact, the Torah has more to say about honesty in business beyond just, “Don’t steal.” In Leviticus, the Torah even regulates what might happen one step away from money that might lead people to cheat.

Honest Weights and Measures

Leviticus 19 contains some of the most important and most famous laws in the Torah. The Ten Commandments appear here, as do the verses, “You shall not stand by idly while your neighbor bleeds” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The whole chapter is known as the “holiness code,” implying that beyond just being ethical, treating people fairly is truly a sacred obligation that God demands of us.

The very last laws in chapter 19 say, “You shall not falsify measures of length, weight or capacity. You shall have an honest balance, honest weights, an honest ephah (a unit of dry measure) and an honest hin (a unit of liquid measure)…” (Leviticus 19:35-36)

Why did this law have to be written in the first place? The simple answer is: you don’t forbid something from happening unless it has already been occurring. So clearly, there were people who would falsify their weights and measures. Cheating and stealing are nothing new in today’s society!

And that’s what makes this commandment so important and valuable. If the Torah had simply said, “Don’t steal,” our natural ability to rationalize would have given people the opportunity to say, “Well, if I weigh down my grain a little bit, no one will really notice. And after all, everyone else is doing it, so it’s not really stealing.” Instead, the Torah teaches us, “Don’t cheat even – perhaps especially – when you’re one step removed from money.” It’s a lot easier to steal when you’re one step removed – and that’s why that commandment is needed.

The First Thing We Will Be Asked When We Die

The Rabbis even elevated honesty in business to become one of the highest values we need to live up to. In fact, in the Rabbinic mind, the first thing God will ask us when we die is not, “Did you believe in Me?” or “Did you pray?” No – according to the Talmud (Shabbat 31a), the first question we will be asked when we die is, “Were you honest in your business dealings?”

We sometimes say that we know we are acting honestly if we can look at ourselves in the mirror in the morning. But perhaps that is not enough of a judge. After all, our ability to rationalize could make it very easy for us to say, “Well, it’s just a small thing I’m taking.” Moment by moment, we can easily find ways to steal that feel OK and won’t cause us to lose sleep.

So to truly bring ourselves up to our highest standards, the question should not be, “How do we feel about ourselves right now?” It should really be, “How do we want to feel about ourselves at the end of our lives?”

Only by having our day-to-day actions live up to the values we espouse can we truly be proud of the actions we take.

Posted on April 19, 2012

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The Singularity vs. the Gift of Death

“A gift is something that cannot appear as such.” – Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death

And God came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. And the God said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” (Genesis 11:5-6).

What was it that the builders of the Tower of Babel did that was so wrong? Could you imagine a moment when the entire planet’s human population actually got along long enough to do something together. Here we were one planet, one people – can you imagine? John Lennon would be so proud (“Imagine”). Only, what? God doesn’t see it us coming together as all that good. In fact, He thinks its dangerous. Wait till 2045, the date that Ray Kurzweil, the 1999 National Medal of Technology award winner sets for the singularity.

What is the Singularity?
In short, the singularity is the moment in time, at the current rate of acceleration, that the technology we create, computers, will actually “think” faster than we do.

Click to read the Time Magazine article from Nov 2011

One of the major implications for faster, smarter, and smaller computers, may very likely be nanobots, artificially intelligent inventions that can be made as small as our blood cells. Could we have such nano-cells floating inside of us to keep us healthy? Could we live, 150 years? 200? Forever?

If we could continually renew and/or replenish our cells through technology would we? Why wouldn’t we? It is certainly Judaism’s point of view that we are partners with God, even in healing the body. If we could get rid of illness, rid of death, shouldn’t we?

I’ve recently watched the documentary Transcendent Man, which details Kurzweil’s expectations for our near future (if I keep my body moving, and if I survive my son’s driving lessons, and if I stop eating whatever deliciousness my wife bakes, I should make it). There is a compelling, yet disturbing argument being made that through faster and smarter technology our lives will be extended beyond the simplicity of one decaying body that ends in 80 to 90 years. If if happens, its because we built the technology to make it happen. The possibility is closer than some think. I’m pretty sure that the bio-tech company a few miles from my house already has the technology to clone me.

What would God say?

They said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth” (Gen. 11:4).

The rabbis teach that it was not the building that was an affront to God, it was there motivation: “A name for themselves”. In a famous midrash, a rabbinic tale, the people would climb a ladder on one side of the Tower, place their brick and climb down the other side. When someone would fall, the people would mourn the brick that should have been placed, and not the person.

We are told that God already had the Torah, the lessons and the Law before creation came into existence. This is a good model for science as well. We should get a handle on the issues (can does not mean should) before we reach points of no return.

I suggest that the same issue is at hand with the singularity and life-extension (or even re-animating the dead; Kurzweil hopes to bring back his deceased father). Motivation is an issue. There is no question that we will be able to do amazing things -beyond what you and I can imagine today. But the question of ethics, has never, and will never, be overcome by technology.

The most precious commodity we have is life. It is painful enough to see it wasted. A time when life extends forever? Well, that would be worse. Life would be rendered insignificant, meaningless.  Death always feels like such a tragedy, but it may very well be better than the alternative.

Posted on February 14, 2012

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