Some people think that although it's important to be nice and fair to others, when it comes down to matters having to do with money, the rules somehow change and they are allowed to act unscrupulously. This is clearly not the Torah way. In this week's portion, we are told that we shouldn't act unfairly to one another even when we do business. Rather, we should recognize that this too is part of our relationship with God, and we should always treat people kindly and honestly, maintaining our proper values.
In our story, a kid gets a different kind of business education.
"THE CARD SHARK"
I had been involved in some 'big deals' before, but I had never run into a customer as tough as this kid. I made him my offer, and tried to look tough, cold and mean. Anybody who knew me would have laughed out loud at how I, Donny Sharp, Mr. Nice Guy - who was always nice, and friendly to everyone - had suddenly turned into Mr. Tough Guy. But what could I do? Business was business. I thought I was ready for anything, until I met this kid Yaakov.
Let me explain what happened. For a lot of kids baseball cards are a fun hobby, but to me, they were my life. So it was only natural that when I heard that a kid in town had an extra 1967 Carl Yazstremski Triple Crown winner card, I knew I had to get it, whatever the price.
I called the kid up, his name was Yaakov, and he seemed ready to deal and told me to come over. I packed up some of my most valuable cards to trade with him, jumped on my bike, and got ready for battle.
The whole way there I kept psyching myself up, telling myself over and over how I had to leave my usual values and sense of fair play at the door and just be as tough and ruthless as I could once I hit the trading table. After all, when it came down to business or money, it was a jungle where only the strong survived, and if you had to 'stretch' the truth or pull a bit of a 'fast one' once in a while, it was all just part of the game.
Yaakov's mom let me in, and led me to her son's room. I saw him thumbing through his baseball cards and mumbling something to himself. He looked up at me and smiled. He actually looked like a pretty nice guy. If I hadn't come to trade cards, I would have certainly smiled back, but as it was, I curled my lips into a snarl.
Without waiting for an introduction, I got right down to business. "I hear you've got an extra '67 'Yaz' card, and I'm ready to trade." I took out one of my cards and made him an offer that I knew was too low, but you never know. More than once, I had been able to sucker a kid into giving me their best cards for almost nothing.
But this kid didn't say anything. He just kept his eyes down and continued to mumble to himself. I was sure this was just a tough-guy tactic to get me to raise my bid. I could see he also knew the rules, so I upped my offer to something a little more reasonable.
Still, no response.
I pulled yet another card out of my pocket. This was getting expensive, but I just had to get that card. I was sure the kid would jump at this deal, but he still didn't say a word! I thought I was a tough businessman, but this guy was something else. My heart was beating wildly and I didn't know what to do. I only had one more card I could add to the deal. If I gave it to him, he'd be taking me to the cleaners - and he knew it. But I just had to get that card.
Sweating, and trying to maintain what little was left of my dignity, I pulled out the last card and said, "Here - take it or leave it!" and held my breath.
Finally, the kid looked up and quit his crazy mumbling. Still smiling - who wouldn't smile after ripping me off like that - he said, "You've got a deal."
He handed me his treasure as I threw my cards down on the table, fully expecting him to greedily scoop them up. But what Yaakov did next made no sense at all. He just pushed them all back at me, all the cards except for the very first card I had offered him! Was this some new tactic to get even more out of me?
"Hey, what's going on?" I snapped.
He looked at me, still smiling, and explained, "When you made me your first offer I decided then to accept it. I knew the offer wasn't great, but I could see you really wanted the card, and after all, I did have two, so why not do you a favor?"
Could he be for real? "But if you were willing to make the trade, why didn't you say so?" I asked, bewildered.
He laughed. "I'm sorry if I was rude, but I was in the middle of counting up one of my card sets, and if I would have stopped to answer you, I would have lost count and had to start all over. I hoped you'd notice, but you just kept going and offering more and more."
Boy did I feel dumb. "But that was my tough luck. You had every right to take advantage of my mistake and keep all the cards. That's business - a jungle where anything goes, isn't it?"
Yaakov shook his head. "I disagree. Who said that just because I'm doing business I'm suddenly in a jungle and allowed to act like a wild beast? I learned in the Torah that a person has to be good and fair wherever he is and whatever he's doing. It makes no difference if he's praying or playing. In fact, it teaches us especially to be fair in business, maybe because it's so tempting to lose it there. Since I accepted your first offer in my mind, it wouldn't be fair to take the other cards. So here, enjoy your new card, and maybe we'll do business again someday."
I just couldn't stop shaking my head the whole way home. I also hoped we'd do business again some day, but you could bet I'd be doing business differently from then on. I got a valuable new card but even a more valuable new outlook: I never have to put aside my values, and the best deal was a fair deal.
Q. How did Donny, the boy in the story, feel at first about doing business?
A. He felt like he was usually honest and nice, but when doing business he was allowed to be mean and dishonest.
Q. How did he feel after meeting Yaakov?
A. He saw that doing business wasn't different, and that he should do what's right all the time.
Q. Why do you think people make the mistake of thinking they can act differently when they are dealing with money and business?
A. Many times a person can feel a desire for something, and only afterwards come up with a reason, or rationalization why it's okay. The prospect of wealth of any sort (even baseball card 'wealth') can be extremely tempting, and cause a normally ethical person to find a reason to put his values on hold. The Torah realizes this, and goes out of the way to tell us to remain kind and honest, even in the face of this kind of temptation.
Q. But if nearly everyone around us is acting unscrupulously, won't we lose out unless we do act the same way?
A. We might think so, and it even might look that way in the short run. But in the end, fairness and honesty will always win out. God is really the one who is running the show, and He wants us to be fair. So we can be sure that somehow He will make sure a person won't lose, but only gain by doing things the right way.
Ages 10 and Up
Q. How does a person's business scruples reflect on the closeness of his relationship with God?
A. A great Torah leader once said that even if a person appears on the outside very religious, if he is dishonest in his business dealings it is a sign that deep down he really does not believe in God. We can understand this, as the Jewish concept of belief in God includes within it the belief that God is the only source of a person's success - including business success. Therefore one who truly believes in God would never imagine that he would have to do something against His will, like act dishonestly, for God to supply him with success. The mark of a close relationship to God is one who trusts Him enough to act the way He wants him to act.
Q. Is there ever an exception, when one is justified in abandoning his ethical values?
A. Although what is ethical can change depending on the circumstance, once the ethical course is determined, there is never a justification to abandon it. However, it is often difficult to know exactly what is the ethical option at any given moment, and the Torah is a compendium of God-given ethics which goes into great detail to present virtually every conceivable life situation, and a guide to its ethical response.