Deceptive Practices

Each week Rabbi Yoel Domb writes about issues of business ethics related to the Torah portion of the week.

Parshat Breishit represents a microcosm of man’s history and spiritual evolution, and it shows us the opposing extremes that he can reach. It depicts man at his zenith- created in the image of G-d, with the ability to communicate with G-d. It also portrays him at his most profound nadir, from the moment that he disobeys G-d’s explicit command, to the point where he descends to commit grievous crimes of murder, idolatry and forbidden sexual union. We see both man’s potential to elevate himself and do good and his ability to slip based on his weaknesses and foibles. We can discern the reasons for his complex familial relationship, his difficulty in providing sustenance for himself and his family, and his smoldering jealousy of those who surpass his own achievements. If we plumb the depths of this Parsha we could probably assemble a comprehensive profile of man’s behavior which would explain his conduct throughout history.

Since we are concerned with the interface between modern business ethics and the Torah we can learn by studying the first deception in the Torah and its calamitous consequences. Adam’s wife Chava was confronted by the serpent, who questioned why she did not eat from the Tree of Knowledge. Chava replied that G-d had forbidden eating from that tree under penalty of death. However, Chava added that G-d also forbade touching the fruit of the tree, which was not true. The wily serpent seized upon this to trap Chava. According to Chazal, the serpent pushed her against the tree and then declared that “just as there is no punishment for touching the tree, so there is no punishment for eating its fruit”. Moreover, said the serpent, the fruit of this tree promises great rewards for those who eat it- “you will be like G-d -knowing both good and evil”. Chava was sorely tempted by these words and she eventually ate from the fruit of the tree.

Without searching for allegorical interpretations of this primordial sin, we have here a classic case of business deception. The serpent did not state his true goal in persuading Chava to eat the fruit. Chazal say that the serpent hoped that she would offer the fruit to her husband first. Once Adam died, the serpent would be able to marry. Even if Chava herself ate the fruit, the serpent presumed that she could not be held responsible since she had not heard the command from G-d. (Maharal; Siftei Chachamim) .Had Chava known the snake’s evil intentions, it is doubtful whether she would have risked eating the fruit.

The serpent also deluded Chava regarding the tree of knowledge. He claimed that the tree would grant a status “like G-d”,though he lacked any basis to support his claim. Chava’s belief in the snake’s words testifies to the gullibility of man when he is confronted with an item that he imagines he wants but with a price tag he cannot afford. The process of delusion, which can lead to his purchasing such an item stems both from his own perception that he needs the item, and from the subtle and cunning efforts of the salesman to persuade him of that need.

Put in a modern context, the story of the serpent’s deception is surprisingly germane to contemporary marketing practices. For example, if people knew that the foods they were purchasing might contain toxins which could seriously damage their health, would they agree to buy them? A recent television program demonstrated how Jaffa fisherman continued to sell fish which had been disqualified by inspectors after the inspectors left, and when the inspectors returned after a few hours, they were bribed by the fisherman into certifying that the fish was edible. (Amazingly, all this was caught by a hidden camera). Evidently man has copied the serpent’s technique of concealing the dangers inherent in tasting from the tree of knowledge, and now passes on the rotting fish to his hapless, ignorant customers.

Moreover, marketers have perfected their strategies of persuasion to the point that consumers are really convinced that they are attaining amazing commodities. Many times the marketers themselves know that the real value of their merchandise is hardly what they portray it to be, but they are only too happy to create the hype necessary to promote their sales. For example, beverage advertisements commonly feature crowds of hip young men and women staring in admiration at the drinker, as if quaffing the product is an invitation to social success. Purchasers of washing powders are assured that they will never see another stain on their clothes after washing them. Car manufacturers will convince people that their cars are totally safe, even when they are aware of potentially fatal flaws in their construction. (For example, Ford’s knowledge that their new Pinto car had a high chance of exploding on collision). All this can be likened to the serpent’s specious claim that “You will be like G-d”.

G-d’s punishment was swift, immediate and appropriate. Chava was cursed with the burden of bearing children and rearing them. Since she had been responsible for man’s mortality, it would now be her prerogative to bring new life into the world. Because she had succumbed to temptation and tempted her husband, she now would be unable to initiate new temptations without her husband’s will. The serpent lost xc its ability to communicate with people as an equal. Instead he is told that they will hate him eternally and will try to kill him when they see him. The serpent, who had used his guile to deceive, would never again be trusted by man, nor would he ever use his smooth tongue again to tempt others to sin.

The lesson for us is clear: the Torah eschews deceitful conduct and exploitation of human gullibility for personal gain. As a seller, man must be honest, or else he will fall like the serpent. As a buyer, man must learn to curb his desire for all that appears to be good, and focus only on what he knows to be good -fulfilling G-d’s commands. This will lead him to true bliss, as David, king of Israel affirms: “The statutes of G-d are right -and they gladden the heart”(Tehillim 19:9)

This column presents general principles for approaching business ethics topics. For specific guidelines, please refer to a halachic authority.

Rabbi Yoel Domb is a graduate of JCT and a member of the faculty of the JCT Bet Midrash. He was awarded a fellowship from the Center for Business Ethics for the academic year 2000-2001. He is currently researching topics of business ethics in Jewish Law and is preparing a curriculum to facilitate the teaching of these topics in Rabbinical seminaries (Yeshivot).