(By Rabbi Yair Hoffman for the Five Towns Jewish Times)
How did it happen? Our parents’ and grandparents’ generation were completely aghast at the frivolous spending of money. Yet, somehow, we have become a nation with a strong focus on both spending money and demonstrating that we can. We must ask ourselves whose values are more in consonance with the Torah’s – ours or that of our grandparents?
In times past, there were great Torah leaders who were concerned about rising costs. A rabbi once ruled that when the fishermen collude and overprice the fish, a prohibition can be made upon the consumption of fish on Shabbos. It may take a week or two or even three, but eventually the collective buying power of the ordinary people would force the price back down.
When Jews were burying their dead in the finest of clothing, a great rabbi arose and declared that enough is enough. The rising pressures, the “keeping up with the Joneses” in how to dress the deceased was causing enormous economic pressure on the living. “It must stop,” declared the rabbi, and the tachrichim, burial shrouds, we now use became the norm.
We will see, however, that it is not just great Torah leaders who have saved and are concerned for the financial well-being of their fellow Jews. It seems that this is what is expected by the Torah of everyone. We have to keep this in mind when we are faced with the enticing nature of sheer consumption that contemporary society offers. It seems then that the Torah sources indicate that as far as these values are concerned, our scores are:
- Grandparents: 1
- Our generation: 0
There is also another reality. Our hyper-consumerism contributes to the atmosphere of the need for unbridled spending and the need to demonstrate that we can. This, in turn, creates enormous pressures upon everyone to upspend – even more and more.
EXPECTED FROM EVERYONE
The Talmud tells us (Menachos 76a) that Hashem commanded Moshe to also feed the nation’s livestock from the water that He had caused to emanate from the rock at Mei Merivah. Also, Rashi (Rosh Hashanah 27a) points out that the kohein first removes the vessels from the house before declaring a house impure.
These are both clear examples of the Torah being concerned with the financial well-being of the Jewish nation. The difference between the two cases is that the former is for the entire nation, while the latter demonstrates that the Torah is concerned even for the individual’s finances. There is no mention here of spending.
EXPECTED BEHAVIORAL NORM OF KLAL YISROEL
The Chasam Sofer on Bava Basra (54b) states that, generally speaking, one can make the assumption that fellow Jews are concerned with the monetary well-being of their fellow man, and that this assumption has legal ramifications. We see then that it is the normal behavior expected of all Jews.
Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher, author of the Tur, discusses (in the Choshen Mishpat section of Shulchan Aruch, chapter 35) a person who does not care about Jewish money. He writes that such a person will in the future surely answer for it. The Minchas Chinuch writes that one who is concerned about the preservation of his fellow Jew’s money fulfills the Biblical commandment of v’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha (see his commentary on that mitzvah).
The clear indication from all these sources is that demonstrating concern for the financial well-being of others is not just a mitzvah, it is an expected social norm with reward for those who do it and punishment for those who do not.
On the other hand, according to Wikipedia, upselling is the practice in which a business tries to persuade customers to purchase a higher-end product, an upgrade, or an additional item in order to make a more rewarding sale. A salesperson may try to influence a customer into purchasing the newest version of an item, rather than the less-expensive current model, even when the item has features that the consumer doesn’t really need.
There are many areas in which we can fulfill this mitzvah. One manner is to tell people about how to save significant money in health care. People should look into, for example, United Refuah Healthshare – where a family can save five to ten thousand per year in medical health costs.
HOW TO IMPLEMENT THIS MITZVAH
Business people can do this too by cutting costs and passing on savings. With the proper motivation, doing so would be a fulfillment of a Biblical commandment of loving thy neighbor as thyself.
If a business were to negotiate with suppliers to reduce the price, shouldn’t the business consider at least passing half or a third of that savings down to the customers?
STICK TO THE PLAN
It is important to stick to the percentage plan chosen at the outset when deciding to embark upon this mitzvah. For example, if a yeshiva administrator decided that he was going to try to cut costs (or attempt to raise an extra $200,000 this year) and decided to pass along half that amount to the parent body, he should keep to that 50 percent figure and not give in to temptations of not passing it along.
The Talmud tells us that there is merit to the masses, thus having the customer base as a 50 percent partner will increase the amount a business can save. Let us remember that it is all up to Shamayim, and not our own actions that bring in the money. It is just that we must try.
Many doctors already do it. How many times have we seen a doctor give a patient some sample medicine in order to save the patient the costs of filling a prescription? (This is permitted because the pharmaceutical companies give it to the doctors to dispense in order to curry favor with the doctors.) Or how many times do we see that a doctor will selflessly perform a procedure in his office just to save his patients the time and money involved in having to pursue it elsewhere?
Many businesses offer a group health plan to their employees, but have stopped paying for it because of the expense involved. Still, trying to negotiate a better deal for them would be a fulfillment of this very noble Torah ideal—being concerned for the financial well-being of our brethren.
Another avenue in which we can fulfill this Torah mitzvah is just by familiarizing ourselves with various programs and prices that are available so that we can be in a better position to recommend it to others. For example, there are many people out there who are eligible for either (or even all) state-subsidized dental, orthodontic, and medical insurance for their children. There is no stigma in taking advantage of these programs for people who are truly eligible. It is just that a huge percentage of people are completely unaware that these programs. It would be a mitzvah of v’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha to be informed about these programs and to pass them on to others.
What is important to keep in mind is that the mitzvah is not just to benefit the poor; the mitzvah applies to everyone.
The author can be reached at [email protected]