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Ethics in the Parsha - Va’eira: Free Choice in Business

Does a person have a choice when he is faced with awkward business dilemmas? What is the right way to act in these situations?

| 01.01.19 | 16:45
Ethics in the Parsha  - Va’eira: Free Choice in Business

"And I Will harden his heart and Will make numerous wonders in Egypt"

(Shemot 7:3)

Man's free choice is a central theme in this week's Parsha. G-d informs Moshe before he even sends him to Pharaoh that his words will not be accepted. Indeed, Pharaoh had no wish to lose millions of profitable slaves because of a dubious message from a G-d he did not know or fear. In this way the divine plan came to fruition –"that My wonders may be multiplied in the land of Egypt"- but it is hard to see why Pharaoh is punished and plagued simply because of his predicted and anticipated response. Clearly Pharaoh was concerned about his subjects reaction to a mass amnesty of slaves and the ensuing economic repercussions. This would cause a huge loss of face and might even cost him his throne. Even the initial signs Moshe performed failed to impress Pharaoh, as his own advisors could easily duplicate them.

Why then is Pharaoh deemed responsible and punished for his actions? Why would he be held accountable if his choices were not predicated on free will and were basically the only possible alternatives for him?

The Rambam writes that Pharaoh's loss of free will was in fact a result of his previous actions. Pharaoh had so corrupted his nature with the ruthless enslavement of the Jewish nation that he no longer deserved the right to choose freely. His character was so severely depraved and tainted by his actions that it was only fair and just to deprive him of the opportunity to improve his ways. Despite this assessment, Pharaoh still had free choice initially, until the end of the first five plagues. Chazal explain that "When G-d saw that he did not repent from the first five plagues, He said: from now on, even if he will want to repent I will harden his heart in order to do justice with him". (Shemot Rabba 11).

The question of free choice has also drawn the attention of business ethicists. Some have questioned whether man really has the choice to be an honest businessman, when this can mean loss of livelihood and career opportunities.  For example, when a person comes to an interview and is told to describe his interests, he may not be expected to candidly describe pursuits which would not conform to company interests. He might pass himself off as intellectual, even though he tends to read only the sports sections of newspapers. Or he might be tempted to touch up his hair and register a younger age on his CV in order to have a better chance of landing the job. In these situations society deprives many people of the right to choose freely and expects them to intuitively act in a way which will serve to their advantage. Good businessmen are trained to be tough, uncompromising salesmen who show no sentiment to customers.

 Albert Carr, one of the leading thinkers on ethics, has postulated that there are two different kinds of ethics: one that governs people's personal life and another that serves their business relationships. A man under pressure to conform to certain rules, and who stands to lose promotion and prestige from violating those rules, will consistently choose to maintain them even when he considers them immoral. Carr justifies the occasional white lie used to advance career prospects and similar faults and in his opinion such behavior is part and parcel of business. As Harry Truman pithily commented: "If you can't stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen".

Can Jewish tradition accept such a viewpoint? Are there situations where a person is forced to compromise his values and adopt more lenient morals? Would he be held accountable when he adopts these morals?  It is possible that Judaism allows "white" lies for some purposes, and thus it might not be forbidden to exaggerate one's qualifications on a resume, as long as there is no intentional suppression of crucial facts. However the moral implications of this approach can start a "slippery slope" which can ultimately lead to evil conduct. Pharaoh also had legitimate concerns when he first began to enslave the Jewish nation-he hoped to protect his nation from foreign control, but when he resorted to torturing and persecuting the Jews, he lost the moral ability to distinguish between right and wrong. Pharaoh lost his free choice by his actions, and in the same way an ambitious businessman can lose his sensitivity and his little deceptions will lead him to accept sinful and unethical behavior.

We can learn from this Parsha that free choice is a true gift from G-d which cannot be abused, since as Chazal teach us "The way which a person wants to choose is the way he will be led to.", and one may ultimately lose one's ability to see the true and just approach to life.