Image: A man fastening his tie. Photo by unsplash/pixabay.
In the film The Godfather there’s a very famous line, spoken by Michael Corleone: “It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business.”
Michael Corleone is in the process of becoming a criminal, and the “business” to which he refers is a crime. I wonder sometimes if the people who say “It’s strictly business” about their own dealings realize that they are quoting a criminal.
Usually when a person uses the phrase, they are implying that if something is business, then the usual moral laws don’t apply. Perhaps the action in question is technically legal, or a loophole is found that can make it fall outside the purview of the civil law. And so they say, “It’s just business,” meaning, “Don’t bother me with that morality stuff – that’s for sissies.” Or simply: “It doesn’t matter. It’s just business.”
However, that’s not how Jewish tradition approaches business at all. In the Talmud, behavior in business is seen as so telling of a person’s character that it is the first question God asks at the Seat of Judgment:
When a man is brought before the [heavenly] court he is asked: “Were you trustworthy in business?” – Shabbat 31a
An enormous block of the Talmud is taken up with business behavior, and it is the topic of a significant chunk of the medieval codes (Mishneh Torah, Shulkhan Aruch) as well. There are mitzvot having to do with weights and measures, with accounts payable and receivable, with payroll, and a myriad other aspects of business life.
Sometimes these mitzvot are remarkably similar to what an MBA would recognize as “Business Ethics” and sometimes not. That’s the reason that the second question at the Seat of Judgment is “Did you set a time for Torah study?” We are not born knowing how to live a life of Torah; we have to study with other Jews and struggle with the texts and the tradition.
The news is full of “just business” that might qualify as Torah transgressions: waste and destruction of natural resources, misleading claims, and dangerous workplaces, to name just a few. I am sure that the people responsible for companies that indulge in such practices tell themselves that they are doing it to stay competitive, that such moral qualms are a luxury they can’t afford.
Torah teaches us that everything we do matters. It matters if we deal fairly with others. It matters what we do with the natural world. It matters when a landlord doesn’t maintain their building. It matters when an employee’s children go to bed hungry. It matters when I pay a few dollars less in taxes and a bridge falls down.
It. All. Matters.
Torah is challenging. Torah is expensive (ask anyone who keeps kosher.) Torah is almost always the harder way of doing things. But at the end of a life of Torah, we can look back and see ways in which the world is a bit better for our having lived in it.
And that is what matters, isn’t it?