The owner, a fine person, tore up the invoice on the spot and said, “I’m sorry. It was a mistake. Please don’t give it another thought.”
The messenger was proud of himself for having saved the Chofetz Chaim a nice amount of money. Had it been our shliach, we would have given him a pat on the back for his efforts. But that was not at all the reaction of the Chofetz Chaim. When he heard about this, he immediately hired a wagon driver and traveled to that city. With tears in his eyes, he begged the owner for mechillah and, with persistence, was finally able to prevail upon him to accept payment for his services. For a while afterwards, the tzaddik was upset about this incident.
In his younger years, the Chofetz Chaim’s rebbetzin ran a grocery store that provided for their family and allowed him to sit and learn in peace. From time to time, he would travel to Vilna or Eishishok to learn in the bais medrash there with a chaburah. Generous people in those cities would bring food to the bais medrash to feed these talmidei chachomim. They considered it a great zechus to support these peirushim and have a portion in their learning.
One day, the Chofetz Chaim received a message from home asking him to acquire certain provisions that were much cheaper in Vilna and to send them home where they were needed. The tzaddik fulfilled the request, going to the market and shipping them back home with a wagon driver going there. When he returned to the bais medrash, he was presented with his daily portion of lunch by Rav Nochum Katz, who was the askan in charge of serving the talmidei chachomim. To his surprise, the Chofetz Chaim declined the offer, saying, “These portions are being served because you and the kind donors want to have a part in the learning of Torah. But I just returned from the marketplace and haven’t yet learned. If I were to accept this portion, I would be transgressing the issurim of gezel and ona’ah.”
Rav Nochum’s emphatic declaration that he was giving him the portion anyway beleiv shaleim didn’t help. The Chofetz Chaim did not touch the portion offered to him and Rav Nochum was forced to take it back.
In both of the above incidents, a lesser person might have acted differently. After all, one can reason, “I am a talmid chochom. The world stands on my shoulders. It is a privilege for others to support me.” But this was not the way of the Chofetz Chaim. To him, there were no automatic entitlements and there was no such thing as es kumt mir. If he felt he didn’t earn something, he ran from it like the plague.
In this week’s sedrah, we learn about the mitzvah of Shmittah. Simply put, it is a test of our bitachon in Hashem. To sit back and not work on your field for an entire year and allow it to be hefker for others, takes superhuman effort on the part of its owner. But smack in the middle of this mitzvah, we are also commanded about something else entirely.
“And when you make a sale to your fellow or make a purchase from the hand of your fellow, do not aggrieve one another” (Vayikra 25:14). This is the prohibition against cheating a friend in a sale. Then the Torah warns us against something else entirely: “Each of you shall not aggrieve his fellow, and you shall fear Your G-d, for I am Hashem, Your G-d” (ibid. 17). This is the issur of ona’as devorim, hurting people’s feelings with words. What are these two prohibitions doing in the parsha of Shmittah and what do they have to do with one another?
Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch zt”l explains that the central theme of Shmittah is expressed in the posuk of “for the land is mine” (ibid. 23). Everything belongs to Hashem. There is nothing in this world that gives people the feeling of empowerment and control like owning property, something that no force in the world can dislodge from him, for it remains in its place and it never moves. In this respect, land is totally mundane, an expression of man’s kochi ve’otzem yodi, my strength and the might of my hand.
The first person to be misguided by this ownership was Kayin. His name is associated with the word kinyan, acquisition, for he was totally absorbed in his ownership. In fact, even when he brought a present to Hashem, he didn’t give of his best fruit. Eventually, Hashem punished him by making him a wanderer, thus not letting him become attached to his property again.
For this reason, it is imperative that we sanctify the land by resting it during Shmittah, a resting for Hashem. This is a national declaration that the land was given to us only to fulfill the Will of Hashem.
It would seem that such a declaration would only apply to farmers. Only they can demonstrate like this and sanctify the land for Hashem. For city dwellers, who aren’t into agriculture, one would think that such a concept doesn’t apply. This, however, is a misconception. Even one who is involved in trade or business is faced with a similar nisayon. He is also liable to feel that in his business or in his factory, he is king, and no one can compel him to run it any other way than he sees fit. He also needs a mitzvah to put him in his place, to set him straight, and to clarify to him that “you are sojourners and residents with Me” (ibid. 23), also in the world of business.
There are those who have two separate standards in their dealings with people. At home, in shul and amongst friends, they try to be nice and as congenial as possible. Yet, when it comes to business practices, they are totally different. That very same person who is calm at home and kind and giving to those around him undergoes a drastic change the moment he crosses the threshold of his business. There he becomes tough and uncompromising, for, after all, business is all about getting the better end of the deal. He will fight for every penny he can extract from the man he is dealing with and fight hard to outdo his competition. This is war, where the mighty overpower the weak and where every competitor is the enemy. He rationalizes that commerce is all about the survival of the fittest and all of the means to survive are in play.
This is the epitome of kochi ve’otzem yodi. Therefore, the Torah prepared the cure before the wound, the prohibition against swindling your friend in business. This is mentioned side by side with Shmittah, for both of them remind us who is really the Boss: Hakadosh Boruch Hu.
One who sells an item at an inflated price isn’t forcing anyone to purchase it. The buyer agrees because he is unaware of the low quality of the merchandise or of its real worth. The seller who knows the truth has a real advantage. “What’s so bad?” he says to himself. “This is what business is all about. It’s a mini war and I have the upper hand.” The Torah’s outlook is drastically different. Not only is the one doing the cheating stealing, but he also displays a lack of emunah in Hashem. Just as with the mitzvah of Shmittah, resting the land demonstrates total reliance on Hashem, so too, in business dealings, one who truly believes that Hashem provides his parnassah doesn’t have to resort to swindling and deception.
But what is the connection to the ona’ah of words, of hurting someone’s feelings? Here, too, there is a lesson regarding emunah. There are those who would never raise a hand to physically harm another, yet they don’t hesitate to insult others or make snide comments and hurtful jokes at their friend’s expense. They think that words really don’t harm anyone. This is also erroneous. In fact, words can be more painful than physical blows. In addition, he is taking advantage of someone who is not as sharp as he is and isn’t capable of a quick retort. He is trying to boost his own ego by putting down the other guy. Subconsciously, he thinks that the level of one’s social standing is based on competition, and by gaining the upper hand in an argument or appearing to be wittier, he is the victor. Sometimes, he feels like he was slighted, and by taunting another, he is just sticking up for his honor.
For this, the Torah forbids ona’as devorim. Hashem is the One who determines a person’s social standing, and hurting a person’s feelings will get you nowhere. The word ona’ah may be associated with the word oni, my power, as in kochi vereishis oni, my strength and my initial vigor (Bereishis 49:31). It may also be related to the word ani, I. One who truly believes in Hashem doesn’t have to resort to deviant and unmannerly ways to get ahead in life. He acts with rectitude and courtesy in dealing with his fellow man and leaves his success and his financial and social standing in the Hands of the Borei Olam.
Even if someone offends him, he isn’t inclined to answer back, for he sincerely believes that about those who are humiliated and do not answer back it is said, “And let those who love him be like the powerfully rising sun” (Shoftim 5:31). When the moon came before Hashem and complained that two kings cannot rule at the same time and the sun remained silent, Hashem told the moon to reduce itself. By remaining silent, the sun became the primary source of air, light and energy. Similarly, if one remains silent when dishonored, Hashem has many ways to elevate his status and honor (see Shabbos 88b, Maharsha).