The story is told of a fabulously wealthy businessman who had no children, and began thinking about declaring an heir to his enormous estate. He needed to decide to whom he would leave his huge fortune and successful enterprise.
After many weeks and months of thinking, he finally devised a plan.
He wrote letters to 30 relatives and close friends, inviting them to his mansion for an important meeting. When they arrived, he explained that one of them would be selected to inherit his wealth, and he wanted to choose the most qualified person, the one whom he could rely on to care for his life’s work so that it will continue growing.
He proceeded to hand each of the 30 friends and family members a bag of seeds.
“I am asking each of you to plant the seeds, produce and care for the plant, and return in six months,” he instructed. “The one who brings the most impressive final product will be entrusted with my fortune and my business. I will then know that I have chosen the person most likely to take the ‘seeds’ I am bequeathing him when I leave this world, and make them grow.”
The 30 friends and relatives took their bags and excitedly returned home. They all worked very hard tending to their plants, hoping to be awarded the fortune.
One of them, however, could not produce anything. The seeds simply did not grow. He read books, consulted with experts – but nothing helped. He had a pot of earth with nothing growing from it.
This man couldn’t understand what was happening. He knew from his conversations with the others that they were producing large, impressive plants. Why couldn’t he? He had no answer.
When the six-month period ended, this man, shamefaced, brought his pot to the businessman’s mansion, along with the 29 others – all proudly carrying pots with beautiful, spectacularly large plants growing from them.
The wealthy man went around the room, carefully examining every pot, giving “oohs” and “ahs” to all the impressive plants, expressing his great admiration for the products presented to him. When he got to the man who could not grow anything, he asked why there was no plant.
“What’s going on? Didn’t you plant the seeds I gave you?”
“Of course I did,” the man replied. “But nothing grew. I have no idea why.”
“I know why,” the wealthy man said.
Turning his attention to the entire group, he announced, to their sheer astonishment, that he was leaving his entire estate to this fellow, he could not produce a plant.
“All the seeds I gave you,” he explained, “had first been boiled in water. Seeds that were boiled in water cannot produce anything. None of you were able to grow a plant with the seeds I gave you. So most of you – 29 to be exact – planted other seeds in place of the seeds I gave you. You were dishonest. You failed to do what I had asked. This fellow, however, refused to lie. This is who I want taking over my business – somebody who is honest, who tells the truth, who doesn’t lie or deceive.”
Yaakov Avinu – The Exemplary Employee
This month we read about Yaakov’s travails after he was forced to flee from his brother, Esav, who sought to kill him. Yaakov was forced to live with his corrupt, immoral uncle, Lavan, for whom he worked as a shepherd. In exchange for his work, he married Lavan’s two daughters, Rachel and Leah. Yaakov then continued working for him in exchange for certain portions of the herds.
Gd blessed Yaakov with extraordinary success, and he became very wealthy. His large fortune invited the resentment of Lavan and his sons. Yaakov eventually took his large family and his herds, and fled. Lavan chased after Yaakov, and when he caught up to him, he searched through his belongings, as Rachel had taken her father’s idols and hid them. This resulted in a tense exchange of words between Yaakov and Lavan.
In speaking to Lavan, Yaakov described his scrupulous loyalty to Lavan throughout his 20 years of service. He spoke of how he tended to the flocks under the hot sun and during the frigid nights. He hardly slept. He protected the sheep from theft and from animals of prey. Not once did he ever take a sheep for himself. And, he added, Lavan repeatedly changed the terms of their arrangement, trying to cheat Yaakov out of what he deserved.
The prophet Micha (7:20) exclaimed, “Titen emet leYaakov – Grant truth to Yaakov.” Our tradition points to this verse as alluding to the connection between Yaakov and the particular trait of emet – truth and honesty. Yaakov, of course, had many outstanding qualities. But he is associated primarily with integrity. And this trait was manifest most clearly in the way he worked for his wily uncle. Yaakov was the model employee. Scrupulously honest. Hard working. Devoted. Loyal. Responsible. “Titen emet leYaakov.” Even when working for a corrupt, dishonest, unethical employer, Yaakov never compromised his principles. And he succeeded, amassing a huge fortune.
Twenty years earlier, when Yaakov left his homeland and traveled toward his uncle’s home, he slept along the road and beheld a famous dream. He saw a ladder that extended to the heavens, and angels walking up and down the ladder.
Numerous different interpretations have been given for the meaning of this dream. Most famously, Rashi explains that Yaakov that night beheld the “changing of the guards,” as it were. The angels that had accompanied him in the Land of Israel were returning to the heavens, while new angels descended from the upper world to accompany him and protect him during what would be a lengthy sojourn outside the Holy Land.
A lesser-known explanation is given by the Ba’al Ha’turim (Rabbenu Yaakov Ben Asher, Germany-Spain, 1269-1340), who notes that the world sulam (ladder) has the numerical value (gematria) of 136 – the same as the word mamon – money. At first glance, this might appear as nothing more than a random coincidence. But in truth, this numerical association reflects a profound and important lesson, one which was directly relevant to Yaakov at this point in his life.
Until this moment, Yaakov had spent his life immersed in Torah study, without any other responsibilities. Now, he was going to start a family. His father, Yitzhak, had specifically instructed him to marry a daughter of Lavan. Yaakov journeyed not only to flee from his brother, but also to get married and have children whom he would need to support. And so Gd showed Yaakov the image of a ladder, representing mammon – money, to teach him that the pursuit of wealth is like a ladder: it can either elevate a person, or cast him down to the ground.
The quest for money is, inherently, perfectly legitimate – as long as we recognize that it is a “ladder.” It can lead a person to dishonesty, to lying, cheating and deception. There is a lure to lower one’s ethical standards when a profitable opportunity presents itself. The angels going down the ladder symbolize the risk of “descent,” or moral decline, when pursuing a livelihood. The ascending angels, by contrast, show us how the pursuit of wealth can elevate a person, granting him the opportunity to give, to donate, to contribute, to build, to have an impact. Money is a ladder – it can lift a person to great heights of meaningful accomplishment, or, Gd forbid, lower him to the depths of immorality.
Setting the Gold Standard
Our nation is known as Yisrael, the name given to Yaakov Avinu. This means that one of our primary defining characteristics, if not the defining characteristic of our people, must be emet. Honesty in business is not just a “nice thing to do,” or a measure of piety reserved for the especially pious. It is the “a,b,c’s” of Judaism. We are the children and heirs of Yaakov Avinu, the pillar of emet, the exemplar of integrity, the model of ethical behavior. Whether one is an employee or employer, and in whichever field one works, his very first and most important job is to be honest, to speak truthfully. If he does, then his job or business uplifts and elevates him. He becomes a worthy heir of the glorious spiritual legacy of Yaakov Avinu.
Yaakov lost nothing as a result of his scrupulousness. To the contrary, he became exceedingly wealthy. When we forfeit a profitable opportunity for the sake of honesty, we are not making any sacrifice whatsoever. We only gain. Following the values and principles of the Torah is the greatest of all investments, with guaranteed returns.
We must never forget that being “religious” does not involve only prayers, tefillin, mezuzah, Shabbat observance, kashrut, modest dress, and Torah study. Of course, all this is a critically important part of a religious lifestyle. But it also requires being scrupulously honest in all our dealings with other people, whether Jew or gentile. This is what the name “Yisrael” means – that we follow Yaakov’s example of honesty.
Religiously observant Jews must be the ones setting the gold standard of business ethics. We must distance ourselves as far as possible from any questionable practices, from anything that even borders on dishonesty. As the proud descendants of Yaakov Avinu, and as Gd’s ambassadors to mankind, let us maintain the strictest moral standards whatever we do, wherever we are, and with whomever we engage, thereby bringing glory to ourselves, to the Jewish Nation, and to the Almighty.