Each week we discuss one familiar halakhic practice and try to show its beauty and meaning. The columns are based on Rabbi Meir's Meaning in Mitzvot on Kitzur Shulchan Arukh
Laws of Acquisitions (part 4)
To review, the main insight of Rav Natan is that commerce is an important instrument of Providence, as it helps to channel material items to those individuals who can best help them fulfill their Divine mission. In order for commerce to fulfill this role, good information is essential, so fair dealing is an indispensable part of business.
It is also essential that there be a consciousness of this objective; thus, the main kind of acquisition is raising up the object, symbolizing the fact that the object attains spiritual ascent through the transfer. Likewise, mere verbal agreement doesn't effect a transfer of ownership because the buyer hasn't yet demonstrated his commitment to the object by a concrete act of kinyan (acquisition). In this same vein, according to Torah law, giving money effects an acquisition because obtaining money is the ultimate elevation; it gives the person not a particular object but rather an abstract power to further God's providence, through charity or through any other acquisition. But the Sages were compelled to annul this kind of acquisition because in mankind's current fallen state, following the sin of Adam and Chava and the expulsion from Eden, money is often acquired for no particular goal at all, but merely for the sake of mindless acquisitiveness.
Now let us begin our presentation of Rav Natan's explanation of a money acquisition of land. Rav Natan points out that the curse of man is intimately connected with the curse of the earth. (See Bereshit 3:17-19.) This curse includes all material reality; mankind and matter alike were exiled from their proper relationship by the sin of man, and anything we do to redeem the fallen state of mankind and matter helps reverse this mutual curse.
But as we have explained in other columns, even though the curse of the earth also includes other kinds of matter, our connection to earthly possessions, to earthliness, is primarily signified by our connection to the earth itself.
By the same token, our ability to elevate earthliness to God's service is primarily manifested in elevation of the earth. For example, in terms of production, which is prior to commerce, Divine providence is evidenced by all kinds of industry, but most powerfully by agriculture. (This is emphasized by the Sefer HaChinukh.)In terms of commerce, which Rav Natan explains is a continuation of the "repair" effected by production, this repair is most powerfully evidenced by buying land itself.
Let us cast this mystical idea in practical terms. We have already explained that acquisition is most elevating when the buyer creates a psychic connection with the object and intends to use it in God's service. It is most degrading when the buyer is alienated from the object and obtains it for the sake of mindless acquisition.Perhaps Rav Natan is implying that buying land creates a much more powerful psychic connection than buying chattels. People do trade in land, but it is not as easy as trading in merchandise and the connection to land tends to be much more permanent and committed.
I believe that this interpretation has support from the gemara. As an example of the unique power of land, Rav Natan cites Rebbe Elazar who asserts, "Anyone who doesn't have land is not called 'man' (adam)" (Yevamot 63a). Yet later on the same page, Rebbe Elazar himself asserts, "Working the land is the most degraded of all occupations". Tosafot explain that the first statement refers to someone who buys land for his own dwelling and sustenance, while the second refers to someone who merely works the land. We see that the kind of land purchase idealized by Rav Natan is the kind where the owner creates a lasting and vital connection with the land.
Following the precedent of Avraham Avinu in our portion, we should acknowledge that for the Jewish people, a truly lasting and vital connection with the land is possible only in the land of Israel.
Rabbi Meir authors a popular weekly on-line Q&A column, "The Jewish Ethicist", which gives Jewish guidance on everyday ethical dilemmas in the workplace. The column is a joint project of the JCT Center for Business Ethics, Jerusalem College of Technology - Machon Lev; and Aish HaTorah. You can see the Jewish Ethicist, and submit your own Qs — www.jewishethicist.com or www.aish.com