Each week Rabbi Yoel Domb writes about issues of business ethics related to the Torah portion of the week.
Many times we ask ourselves: “Should I buy that expensive item simply because it is produced locally and I’m benefiting the local economy, or should I save money and invest in a foreign product which is just as good?” Both supporting one’s locale and maintaining a tight fiscal policy are important principles and when they conflict it is difficult to know which to prefer.
The juxtaposition of these two concepts in this week’s Parsha is the Torah’s way of showing how one can take precedence over the other in certain situations. In Parshat Chukat one of the main themes is water- or rather, the patent lack of water in the desert. Water is a crucial aspect of Jewish life both as a spiritual purifier (for example the necessity for pure, flowing water in the laws of the red heifer) and as a source of physical sustenance. When Miriam dies and the miraculous flow of water ceases, the people complain bitterly to Moshe:
“Would that we had died with our brothers before G-d. Why did you bring G-d’s nation to this desert to die here with our cattle?”
Moshe is then told by G-d to speak to the rock, which will bring forth water: “and you will give drink to the people and their cattle.” Chazal infer from the repeated emphasis of animals that “G-d wants to preserve Israel’s money” (Menachot 76b). G-d provides his miraculous sustenance for the animals as well as for the people to show His concern for their material possessions. Indeed, when Moshe subsequently hits the rock, the Torah adds that both animals and people benefited from this miracle, which continued until the entry into Israel.
This concept appears again in the laws of leprosy. The rule is that a house and its contents are not deemed leprous until the priest formally declares their status. The Torah tells the priest to ensure that all utensils which will become leprous are removed from the house before he enters it, since some cannot be used afterwards and “the Torah wants to preserve Israel’s money”. Possibly the reason it is stressed again in Parshat Chukat is to demonstrate its importance both in the private and public spheres- money should never be frittered away unnecessarily.
Yet amazingly the next paragraph introduces a new and contrary idea. Moshe sends messengers to Edom requesting permission to pass through their land on the way to Israel. Moshe emphasizes that the people will stay on the public thoroughfare and will not pillage the fields, and they will not “drink water from wells”. At first glance this seems to mean that the Jews have their own well and do not need the local resources. Chazal however noticed the word “wells” and explained that the reference here is to the miraculous well which the Jews had brought with them from the desert. Moshe tells the Edomites that the Jews will not rely on that well and instead will purchase water from the locals. (Bamidbar Rabba) This explanation is borne out by the continuation of the story. The Edomites refused to let Israel go through their land, and therefore Moshe suggested that they traverse the more difficult mountainous route and “if we and our cattle will drink water, we will pay its price”. Obviously the Jews would not need to buy water if they relied on the well.
It is easy to be confused by this apparent contradiction. Does the Torah care about Israel’s money or not? If G-d went to such effort to provide miraculous water for the thirsty animals to preserve Jewish money, why does Moshe then insist on paying for water in Edom rather than using the miraculous well? Chazal therefore conclude that if a person is visiting a certain place he should purchase local produce even if he has his own food. This is his way of showing recognition for his host who has provided him with a place to stay. That this concept appears immediately after the previous paragraph which taught us the importance of Jewish money shows that there is a higher ideal than preserving money: the obligation to show gratitude to one’s host for his hospitality.
On a practical level, I believe this is a fundamental lesson in true Jewish etiquette. Even a wayfarer must pay to support his host. Certainly then one should be willing to shell out more money than necessary in order to support one’s indigenous economy, since that economy sustains the country and the country provides a haven and shelter for those who live there. This lesson applies in any country, but certainly in Israel in our present turbulent times it behooves us to buy Israeli products even at greater cost to ourselves rather than purchasing cheap foreign alternatives. Of course, this does not include buying inferior products for unreasonable prices, but we should definitely be willing to pay more for a local product. In this way we can express our gratitude to the state of Israel for being a true and faithful “host” for all its citizens and endeavoring to fulfill their needs. Thus we can emulate the sterling behavior of our fathers as they entered Edom.
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).