"When you sell property to your neighbor, or buy any from your neighbor, you shall not wrong one another"
In March, when government officials began issuing stay at home orders, many in our society rushed to stores to stock up on food and household supplies. Toilet paper and hand sanitizer filled shopping carts and soon became hard to find on shelves. As the weeks went on, food items like yeast and flour were in high demand. Hospitals and health professionals spoke publicly about the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) and urged the general population not to buy the masks and other gear meant for medical professionals. Something about the government orders caused survival instincts to not only kick in but go into overdrive. It was not our finest moment.
This week’s Torah reading, Behar-Behukkotai, focuses on how we interact with each other as a society. There are guidelines for how we treat people and property, rules for allowing the land to rest, and consequences for not following the rules. These guidelines come at the end of the book of Leviticus, known also as the Holiness Code, a final reminder of how we need to behave toward each other. The verse above is an example of this theme – you should not wrong one another.
This reminder is needed now more than ever. While the stories of hoarding food and supplies have decreased, there are now conflicts over when and how to “reopen” our communities. No one – not government officials or medical professionals -- has a definitive answer. Should we wear masks? Gloves? Chastise those who are not wearing masks or social distancing? We are wrestling with our own frustrations and too often, it comes out at our neighbors, a store employee, our friends, our family.
We are living in an unprecedented time of conflicting values and needs. Do we prioritize opening businesses to ensure employees can work and provide for their families? Or do we prioritize the health of medically vulnerable populations? We are commanded not to do wrong by another person, especially in matters of business, yet our current situation does not give us a clear way to do that. We need to be willing to hear the perspective of another, even when that perspective challenges our previously held values. For short of the development and introduction of a vaccine, any of the steps we take to resume engaging in the mundane business affairs highlighted in our Torah portion will come at some cost, necessitating compromises and sacrifices that we have not encountered before.