Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
“It’s not fair!” If you are like me you have both had this said to you and have said it yourself. And, more likely than not, before it was over someone said “Fairness has nothing to do with it.”
In fact, in Israel this sentiment is likely to be expressed “Zeh lo fair.” It’s not that Hebrew doesn’t have good words to express what is appropriate or equitable. The prophets railed against unfairness in the world and exhorted the people to be just. However, maybe one of the consequences of speaking a language that is tied so deeply to the ancient texts is that a dispute over who got the bigger slice of pizza falls short of meriting the same words used by Moses or Isaiah.
While questions about fairness are never far from our discourse usually when they take center stage the focus is on the miniscule rather than the more intractable and sweeping issues of justice. These days the specific topic has to do with who is responsible for air that may have been intentionally taken out of footballs to gain unfair advantage (if only there was a catchy name for this whole thing). The incident can certainly provide material for a more general conversation about fairness or its counterpart,cheating, and has lent itself to strongly expressed opinions about accountability and expectations for those who play a game and those who are called upon to make sure games,or other similar activities, are fair.
Cheating is pretty easy and, in one form or another, pretty common. In fact, one of the most common justifications people give for cheating is, believe it or not, a desire for fairness. The argument goes like this: I know how easy it is for everyone to take advantage of the system and how infrequently the rules are enforced. I can’t stop others from cheating, so the only recourse I have is to even the playing field and join the club.
When we approach questions of fairness this way, we meet a dilemma. On one hand, we can take seriously the idea that the playing field must be level and be forced to measure everything down to the parts per square inch, On the other hand, we can decide to let go the obsession with what everyone has and does and thus risk allowing an unfair advantage.
While people may have one or another visceral reaction to this kind of question, the section of the Torah read this week gives us a different insight on cheating and fair play that might point the way out of the trap.
Leviticus 25:14 states “If you sell something to another, you should not cheat them for your own advantage.” Pretty straightforward. However this law is placed in the middle of the instructions on the Sabbatical Year and the Jubilee, the laws of letting the land lie fallow and ensuring that the Israelites recognize that ultimately the land belongs not to them, but to G*d.
One classic commentary explains the connection between the two subjects by making a claim: just like G*d evens out everyone’s possessions through the Jubilee, we learn that anyone who cheats to get ahead will actually fail and their ill gotten gains will be taken away. We all have seen examples of what goes around comes around, but I for one can’t say that every one who cheats gets their comeuppance. But that’s not the point.
The truth is that indeed, “Zeh lo fair,” life is not fair. There is not a natural equity in the world. However, the heart of this teaching for me is that all that we have is a blessing, not entirely or even mostly our own doing. We can respond not by measuring, but with a combination of finding the point of gratitude and looking for ways to share our fortune with others. Actually the comedian Louis C.K. put it in a powerful way during a scene where he hilariously fails to impress upon his little girl that life not being fair is just not something to complain about. “The only time you should look into someone else’s bowl to see what they have is to check to see that they have enough” Louie is expressing in his own way the core principle of fairness in the Torah. Fairness is about making sure we use what we have been given for the sake of others, not use others to measure that with which we have been blessed.
Justice must be pursued and fair play maintained not for the sake of what each individual has but for the sake of what makes us responsible to each other as human beings. This insight changes the game, moving the emphasis from from measuring the numbers on a gauge to being mindful of blessings that cannot be measured.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.