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by Mendel Starkman    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

Meet corporate America. From the popular cubicle farms of the modern office, thousands of trained professionals perform the daily business dealings that make our economy thrive.



Meet corporate America. From the popular cubicle farms of the modern office, thousands of trained professionals perform the daily business dealings that make our economy thrive. Officially, all professional conduct is governed by a combination of corporate bylaws and each employee's own, personal and professional moral convictions. However, the pressure to get ahead and the need to stay on top of multi-billion dollar industries can create an atmosphere that jeopardizes the professional integrity that companies claim to revere. An unspoken mantra can develop that the ends justify the means, and that as long as annual revenues satisfy investors, it really doesn't matter what methods were used to achieve such earnings. Due to this pressure, a person's actions at the office can easily diverge from one's usual moral convictions. And the justification is simple: everyone knows that business is different.

Towards the end of this week's Torah portion, Hashem tells Jacob to leave Laban's house and travel back to Canaan. (Bereishis 31:3) Jacob departed while Laban was away shearing his sheep, but Laban followed upon finding out. When they met, Laban accused Jacob for quietly sneaking away and also for stealing his missing idols. (In fact, Rachel had secretly taken the idols to deter her father from his idolatrous ways.)

Laban searched through all of Jacob's belongings, but could not find the idols. Jacob finally responded to Laban's accusations, saying that they were unbased. In all twenty years that he had worked for Laban, he never said that a wolf killed one of Laban's animals. Instead, Jacob would replace the animal from his own livestock. He did the same for any animal that was stolen. Whether it was hot during the day or freezing cold at night, Jacob did not leave his watch of the sheep to find shade or warmth. Nor was he lax in his responsibilities for the sake of getting a decent night's sleep. (Bereishis 31:36-40) Therefore, Jacob refuted that Laban should have heeded his previous years of honesty and should not have accused him of stealing the idols.

From Jacob's testimony, it is clear that he extended himself far beyond the call of duty to watch Laban's sheep. That alone can be a lesson to us. However, when we take Jacob's actions in a greater context, the lesson becomes so much more potent.

Earlier in the Torah portion, we are told of the difficulties that Jacob experienced with his marital arrangements. He had agreed to work seven years to marry Rachel, but Laban switched Rachel for his older daughter, Leah. Then, Jacob had to work another seven years for the right to marry Rachel. The Ralbag explains the chronology of these events. First, Jacob married the girl who he thought was Rachel, upon agreement to work for the following seven years. At that point, Jacob was tricked and was married to Leah instead. After celebrating with Leah for one week (which would today be known as sheva brachos), Jacob married Rachel. Then, he stayed and worked off his indenture for the next fourteen years.

Jacob knew that he had been tricked even before he started working for Laban. Yet, he still labored for the full time that was agreed upon, with a level of honesty and dedication far beyond what was necessary. From here, the Ralbag draws a very powerful lesson. It is proper for a person to whole-heartedly fulfill that which he had agreed to do for another, even if that other person is not acting properly in return. We see the exceptional dedication with which Jacob worked for Laban, the whole time knowing that he had been tricked. Certainly, when the other party is (please underline "is") properly fulfilling their part, we must extend ourselves to fully and honestly do ours. With this is mind, we should consider how would we rank ourselves at our own jobs?

The Mesillat Yesharim writes that while most people would never snatch something that is not rightfully theirs, they still "taste the flavor" of theft in their everyday business dealings. People perform questionable actions on the job, rationalizing that "business is different." We must realize that we must always act as Jews, both at home and in the workplace. Our business position cannot divorce us from proper Jewish laws and values.

In order to develop a sensitivity for business integrity, it is important for us to put our careers into perspective. The Orchos Tzaddikim explains that a person must trust Hashem - not the actual work - to make him succeed in his dealings. The work that we perform is a means through which we attain our livelihoods, but ultimately, we must realize that the sustenance is given to us by Hashem. To illustrate this idea, the Orchos Tzaddikim gives an example of a woodsman chopping away at a tree. An observer would see the ax breaking through the wood, but definitely attributes the force behind the chopping to the woodcutter - not the ax.

The ax is the tool through which the woodcutter can perform his job, but the woodcutter is clearly the one who has performed the task. In the same way, Hashem is the One who gives us our sustenance and the work that we perform is only the means through which He gives it to us. We must realize that Hashem, like the woodsman, is the driving force behind our livelihoods, and that our jobs are merely one of His many tools.

This means that while we must put in our effort to earn a living, it must be done within the guidelines laid down by the Torah. If we truly feel that Hashem gives us our wealth (whether through our actual jobs, or through any other means of monetary gain), then the only proper effort to exert is that which He allowed. Someone who breaks the Torah's laws shows that they lack some degree of this basic faith, instead feeling that their job alone provides for them without Hashem's involvement. Hashem certainly does not want us to lie and take what is not rightfully ours.

Conversely, when our livelihood is free from all possible Torah infractions - no desecration of Shabbos or holidays, no cheating or swindling - and we are not lazy in our honest efforts to make a decent living, then we have every right to trust Hashem to give us the sustenance that we need. Should we succeed, we should realize that it was Hashem, not our hard work, that granted us the success. And should we fail in spite of this, we must accept the loss with faith, realizing that Hashem, in His wisdom, determined that it was in our best interest for it to be this way.

The Talmud (Tractate Yoma 86a) explains that one way to "love Hashem, your G-d" (Devarim 6:5), is to perform actions that cause others to love Him. Elaborating on this point, the Talmud describes the reaction that people have to a person who learns Torah, attends to the needs of Torah scholars, conducts his business dealings with integrity and speaks softly with others. They respond, "Fortunate is [this man's] father who taught him Torah, fortunate is his rebbi who taught him Torah. Woe unto the nations who do not learn Torah. See how beautiful and correct are the ways of [this man] who learned Torah." This causes a tremendous sanctification of Hashem's name and exemplifies one's own love for Hashem. However, if one acts poorly, people could unfortunately have the opposite response, causing a desecration to Hashem's name. The way we act in our daily business dealings is definitely noticed and put to this test.

While the atmosphere in a major corporation may dictate that business sets a different standard for one's usual moral convictions, it cannot be that way for the Jewish professional. Jacob set an example of exceptional dedication with a far less than ideal business partner.

Surely, we can follow his example of integrity in normal work situations. We must recognize that just as the woodsman -not his ax - is credited for chopping the wood, it is Hashem - not our jobs - Who gives us our sustenance. Our professions are only a tool through which He can give it to us. Because our jobs are tools, it is important that we use them properly, in accordance with the laws and standards that Hashem has prescribed for us. By following the Torah's guidelines for proper, ethical business practices, may we sanctify His name by letting the world see how beautiful and correct are the ways of our nation that learns Hashem's Torah.


Mendel Starkman, a native Atlantan, attends the Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim in New York.

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