The Spirituality Of Business Ethics
Recognizing God as a partner in all business dealings inspires us to conduct these dealings with the utmost care and honesty.
On the simplest level, R. Akiva seems to be explaining the context of the verse to apply to a relatively smaller number of cases, those in which only the debtor and the creditor knew about the transaction. In such cases, it's one person's word against another's, and it's obviously hard to decide unless one party has conclusive proof.
Yet R. Akiva is also making a theological proposition here: God sees everything and knows what's going on in this world, and is the ultimate Witness to ensure people are dealing fairly with one another. For Akiva, that probably meant that our fear of God's punishment in this world and the next should be enough to keep us in line--not to mention, of course, the possibility of reward for good behavior, again in this world and the next.
R. Akiva's midrash also reminds us that there's really no distinction between ethics and spirituality in Judaism--how we treat each other is a direct measure of our faith, and our faith must always be made manifest in our manner of being in the world. Sure, God watches over us (and surely we can understand that proposition in different ways), but we are also, as liberal rabbis are fond of saying, partners with God in the work of perfecting the world.
You want to have a spiritual experience at your office? Then choose to experience God as the Third Party to any contract, and live up to your word in such a way that your faith and ethics are made clear to all who meet you.
The story is told of R. Shimon ben Shetach, who bought a donkey from an Ishmaelite. His students found a precious stone hanging around the donkey's neck! They told the rabbi, and quoted a verse to prove that God had made this miracle in order to reward the rabbi for his righteousness.
Rabbi Shimon replied: "I bought a donkey, not a precious stone!"--and went immediately to return it to the man who sold him the donkey. The story ends with the Ishmaelite, grateful and amazed at the rabbi's honesty, blessing and praising the God of Shimon ben Shetach (Deuteronomy Rabbah 3:3).
Now, most of us don't usually have the opportunity to return lost diamonds. I would wager, however, that most of us make promises we don't really intend to keep, or borrow possessions or money for a little longer than we should, or tell little distortions of the truth when we've been irresponsible, or take advantage of other people's trust at times when we're rushed and stressed out.
The challenge is to remember R. Akiba's teaching, and remind ourselves that there is a Third Party to any human relationship or interaction, One Who urges us to be our best selves at all times: at the office, at home, between friends. Turned around, this challenge contains its own reward, because every interaction between human beings can become a meeting place for the Holy One.
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