|Imagine a woman getting promoted to management and being given a personal assistant. One day an old friend visits the office and the recently promoted manager wants to indicate her new status, and the power it wields. She calls in her assistant and asks her to bring a cup of coffee. When the assistant leaves the room, the manager spills the coffee into the sink and tells her friend, ‘My assistant does whatever I want.’ Did she do anything wrong if the personal assistant never finds out that the coffee wasn’t needed and therefore her efforts were wasted? When discussing the Jewish servant the Torah warns:
You will not rule over him to crush him and you will revere your G-d. (Lev. 2:43)
What does rule over to crush him mean and what is the connection to have reverence for G-d? Rashi says, “it is forbidden to ask the servant to do unnecessary labor in order to torment him. Do not ask him to heat up a glass of water when you don’t need it.” One might ask, since the servant doesn’t know whether or not the work is necessary, what’s wrong with asking the servant to do it? Imagine the case of an insecure master who takes pleasure in the knowledge that other people do whatever he asks them. He isn’t inflicting pain or causing anguish in any way because the servant is simply doing his job. If the servant is told to bring boxes to the attic, are the boxes any lighter if the action is truly needed; are they any heavier if the action isn’t needed? Being as the servant doesn’t know that the task is unnecessary, no one has been hurt; why can’t he be asked to do an unnecessary action?
In Jewish consciousness, we say this is wrong and that’s why the verse ends and you will revere G-d. A Jew isn’t supposed to take advantage of someone even if the person isn’t aware of it. Bringing light to the world and making it a better place requires doing good and being concerned for every individual. We need to maintain human dignity but having another human being do senseless work is the antithesis of this.
I’m not sure how the Harvard Business Review would assess the case of the recently promoted manager but for Jews it’s a nonstarter. The Torah forbids senselessly using another human being to bolster one’s image or as a fix for low self-confidence.
Rabbi Nechuna (1st century CE) lived to a ripe old age. His students once asked, “on account of what good did you attain long life?” He said, “In all my days I never derived honor from the shame of my fellow.” Imagine a salesman whose last day on the job is at the end of the week. At the beginning of the week, there was a meeting that he wasn’t prepared for. After he leaves the company, someone says, “Did you hear how ridiculous he sounded? Did you see him scrambling through his notes? Anyone with the slightest amount of professionalism would have been better prepared.” That salesman no longer works for the company and will never hear those remarks but the person saying them wanted to bolster his reputation and look good in front of colleagues. He derived pleasure from shaming someone else—even though the other person didn’t know.
Is there anything wrong with being happy with someone else’s downfall even if you don’t share your thoughts with anyone? When someone at work gets fired or demoted and you think, ‘good, he didn’t deserve it anyway’ or ‘life’s been too easy for her, it’s about time she learned what it’s like to have hardships’ or ‘I didn’t like him anyway, I’m glad he’s in pain.’ Even though we don’t reveal these thoughts to anyone, we are using another someone’s disgrace or downfall as a vehicle to make us feel better. When a boss, coach, or commanding officer publicly reprimands someone, some people take pleasure in it. But, we think, so what, the other person doesn’t know my thoughts? That’s why the verse concludes, …and you will revere your G-d. Although this unacceptable behavior might not be known to anyone, it is known to the Almighty and it is deplored.
How can we develop this sublime level of sensitivity? When we realize that the world has a Creator and that each person contains a divine spark, we naturally understand that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity; not just those superior in rank, wealth, power, or position in the social stratum. Even one’s servant must be treated with dignity because he or she too is a created in G-d’s image.
In the course of a lifetime, all of us will deal with thousands of people and have many opportunities to treat each one with dignity and respect. It might not be easy or come natural to us but it’s the challenge every Jew is enjoined to confront. Good Shabbos.