Good business sense

Good business sense

Toldot — Genesis 25:19-28:9

It must be nice to have a job where you go to work each day and help people — like you, rabbi. I just make money; I buy and sell. It’s just business. That’s it.”

With regularity, people tell me this. And they are wrong. There’s something very deep and good about business. So say the rabbis, anyway.

That view comes through in this week’s portion, which features the aging Isaac getting ready to bless his twin sons. I’d better do it now, he thinks, since “I am getting old and don’t know when I am going to die.” His realization prompts the midrash to list other things we do not know, including “what will make us rich” and “what other people are thinking.”

Midrashic lists are not always deeply meaningful. These two things might just be curiosities. It would be nice to know whether we should play the horses just this one time, and most of us waste endless energy figuring out what goes on in other people’s minds. But Etz Yosef thinks more is at stake.

If we knew in advance what would make us rich and what others are thinking, business would cease, he says. That’s not entirely true. Knowing I’ll never get rich writing these articles will not necessarily stop me from buying a new computer — even if I know the price may be lower in six months. The cost of everything can be high but worth it, even if we know in advance that we can get a better deal if we wait.

Still, Etz Yosef correctly analyzes the realm of high-level economic risk, the kind of capitalist development on which advanced economies depend. If everyone knew for sure that a particular stock was about to go up, no one would sell it, and no one would be able to buy it — and then it wouldn’t go up. There would be no market altogether. Other investments would cease as well, because if we all knew we would get rich loaning money to Ding-a-Ling Startup Widgets, we would compete for the privilege, until the promised return on our investment dropped to the point of not being worth it any more.

Even in simple purchases, prices are set by the market, and the market depends on not knowing what the other person is willing to settle for. If we could read each other’s minds, negotiations would be unnecessary, and the process of buying and selling would be no more interesting than the decision to eat, sleep, or go for a walk on a spring day.

Jewish law, too, demonstrates a high regard for doing business. Normally, vows made in God’s name are forbidden. But an exception is nidrei zeruzim, “vows of incitement.” The Mishna’s example is one person saying, “I swear I won’t give you a dollar more,” and the other person saying, “I swear I won’t sell it for a dollar less,” when both parties know that the final price is going to be somewhere in the middle.

Negotiation is what business is all about. If nothing else, it is what makes the process fun. But there is a lot more at stake. In large part, human history amounts to complicating the negotiation chain. From a localized agreement between two neighboring farmers, we now have globalization. Even ordinary purchases involve networks of producers, conveyers, packagers, advertisers, lawyers, accountants, and so on. Financial instruments reach the point where it isn’t even clear what we are buying when we purchase one.

Should we say of all this, “I just make money; I buy and sell. It’s just business. That’s it”? I doubt it. Were that the case, would the rabbis take such care to keep business afloat? It is possible to see the expansion of business as the most important part of the process that we call bringing the messianic age. Do we really think well-meaning diplomats alone will some day convince the world to lay down their weapons peacefully? Is it likely that social justice will catch on worldwide to the point where we won’t have to do it any more?

Our best hope for world peace — in due time — is the maturation of business to the point where the whole world is so intertwined in mutual self-interest that no one can afford the social dislocation that wars necessarily produce. The human future depends on business, and the rabbis sensed that from the very beginning.

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