Chodesh Elul: Reviewing the Check Brings You Closer to God
Tucked away at the end of this week’s Torah reading, parshat Ki Taytze, are the laws concerning fair weights and measures, Devarim 25: 13-16. Here the Torah contrasts the reward for those having honest weights and measures and God’s displeasure with those who don’t. “A perfect and honest weight you shall have so that all your days shall be lengthened on the land that Hashem your God gives you. For an abomination of Hashem, your God, are all who do this, all who act corruptly.”
The prohibition of dishonest weights and measures does not just refer to the use of inaccurate scales. Even possessing these items, having them in your home, is a violation of this command as well as the Torah states, “You shall not have in your pocket…” The Chofetz Chaim’s first published pamphlet was dedicated to exhorting his fellow townspeople to adhere to these laws.
The laws of fair weights and measures, as is true for many others relating to societal justice, are reiterated and expanded in this week’s Torah portion. The reason is that we must keep in mind that the entire Sefer Devarim is being said by Moshe to the nation just prior to their entering Canaan and establishing the Nation of Israel in the Land of Israel. No longer were they individuals all practicing the same religion; collectively, they now merged into a new status, כל ישראל ערבים זה לזה, “all of Israel is responsible one for the other.”
The mitzvah of honest weights and measures includes another law. These laws apply to doing business whether with a Jew or non-Jew. The requirements are the same. Additionally, when explicating these laws, the Rambam informs us, “It is forbidden to deceive a gentile with regard to an account; instead, one must carefully reckon with him.” (Laws of Theft 7:8) So for example, when the waiter brings the check, before giving over your credit card, you should review the bill together with the waiter. This act fulfills the Torah requirement, “He shall reckon with his purchaser.” (Vayikra 25:50) Conversely, regarding people who perform such deceit and resort to dishonest measures, “They are an abomination to God, all who do these things, all who act crookedly.”
Finally, the Rambam concludes this area of law with an astounding statement. “Whoever denies the mitzvah of just weights and measures is considered as if he denied the exodus from Egypt, which is the first of God’s commandments. Conversely, one who accepts the mitzvah of just weights and measures is considered as if he acknowledges the exodus from Egypt, which brought about all of God’s commandments.” (Laws of Theft 7:12) How do we understand this Rambam?
If we look earlier in the Torah, Vayikra 19:36, we find the first time the mitzvah of honest measuring tools is mentioned. Here the verse ties the mitzvah directly with the exodus from Egypt. Rashi here quotes the Sifre, “I took you out of Egypt only on the condition that you would be honest in business. Alternatively, should you think you can be dishonest in business and go undetected, think back to Egypt. There, when I killed the first born, I distinguished the difference between the drop of semen that produced the first-born Egyptians and the drop which produced all the others. So too, I will know if you have false weights, and I will punish those who use them.”
The entire purpose of the exodus from Egypt was to establish “a kingdom of priest and a holy nation” living in their own land. The chief goal Israel’s mission is to bring knowledge of the existence of God to the entire world. This knowledge includes the true ideas of God. Foundational among those ideas is the concept of God’s omniscience, that God is all knowing. This concept is so significant that it comprises a major theme of the Musaf prayer on Rosh Hashanah, זכרונות , “remembrance.”
God, the true judge, has complete and perfect knowledge of all our actions and thoughts. Through His omniscience, God brought about our redemption from Egypt. However, it isn’t enough for this idea to remain solely in the realm of our religious commandments and performances. No. The same God who engineered our exodus from Egypt commands us to reflect this philosophic principle in our daily business practices. How? It is accomplished by requiring our scrupulous observance of the mitzvah of honest weights and measures.
Not abiding by this mitzvah, then, is not only a serious violation of civil law. A willing failure to comply directly reflects on the person’s understanding of God and His nature. Entertaining wrong ideas about God, the source of ultimate reality, or denying His other attributes is the worst state in which a person can be. Such a person, by consequence of their false ideas of reality, is distanced from the true reality, God. In this particular case, this philosophic error leads to a denial of God’s role in the events of our redemption. It renders the retelling of our exodus from Egypt at our annual Pesach Seder pointless.
As we are now in Chodesh Elul, approaching our Holy Days of Awe, we must begin to look introspectively at our ideas that shape our behavior. Let us use this time to reflect on our daily social and business interactions. Know that these realms not only reflect negatively or positively on our true feelings of people but also on our understanding of God. Our ultimate relationship to the Almighty hinges on perfecting this area of our behavior.
Rabbi Robert Kaplan