The Mother Of All Morality

We are commanded by the Torah to be fair and just. Yet, we
are taught to treat the non-Jew differently from the Jew, and in a way that does
not appear to be fair.

For example, it is permissible to lend money with interest to
a non-Jew (according to the Rambam it is a mitzvah to do so), but it’s
forbidden to lend with interest to a fellow Jew. There is no obligation to save
the life of a non-Jew who is in danger, but one does have to save the life of
another Jew. It is permissible to speak lashon hora about a gentile, but
not about a Jew. (And even though it is still not proper to speak it about a
gentile, that’s only because one should not become habituated to speaking
lashon hora
.) One may profit from the error of a non-Jew in business
matters, but not from that of a Jew. (Excepting cases in which keeping the money
would involve a chilul HaShem, or there would be a kiddush HaShem
in returning it.)

Once, in a supermarket, the cashier gave me too much change,
and I returned it. She looked at me and said, “Are you for real? You’re the
first person who ever gave anything back to me here.” I explained to her that
I’m Jewish, and it’s part of Judaism not to keep money that doesn’t belong to
you. There’s no kiddush HaShem if they don’t know that you’re Jewish and
that your Jewishness is the source of your ethical conduct.

The truth is, however, that there is no injustice in our
differing treatment of Jews and non-Jews. It can be explained as follows:
Somebody comes to your door in the middle of winter. He says: “You don’t know
me, and I don’t know you. But I have a big problem. I’m going to be evicted from
my apartment. My wife and are going to be out in the cold if we don’t come up
with $1,000 immediately.” You can see that he’s on the level; the guy is in
tears, he really needs the money. So I give him $100 and tell him, “Listen, I
hope you find nine other people to make up the rest.” Would you consider me a
good person for doing that? Sure you would.

Compare this with a similar situation: There’s a knock on the
door. This time, it’s my mother: “Son, I have a big problem. Unless I come up
with $1,000 immediately, they’re going to throw your father and me out into the
cold.” So I tell her the same thing. “Mom, here’s $100, I hope you can find nine
other people to help.” Would you consider me a good person for doing that?
Obviously not. It’s different. Why? Because the closer the connection with the
other person, the more one is expected to help.

This fundamental understanding is reflected in the Torah. The
Torah mandates a certain minimum that one is expected to do for every human
being. I can lend money to a non-Jew with interest. There is absolutely nothing
wrong with that. Every bank in the world takes interest. The whole economy is
based on it. But when your mother asks for a loan, you don’t take interest. And
when a fellow Jew comes to ask for a loan, that’s like your mother, or your
brother or sister. It’s not the same as taking interest from a stranger. You are
naturally expected to do more for your own flesh and blood than for others.

The same applies to saving a life. Why should I endanger my
life to save somebody else’s? But if it’s a member of my family that’s drowning,
that’s different. There I can be expected to take risks.

Of course, if there’s no risk involved, if the non-Jew is
drowning in his bathtub and I can give him a hand, I should certainly do so.
Basic rules of morality and decency apply. You cannot murder a non-Jew. You
cannot steal from him. (Although there is a dispute as to whether this
prohibition is of rabbinical or Biblical origin, all agree that it’s forbidden.)

G-d created the non-Jew as well as the Jew, and he must be
treated with a certain level of decency and respect.

Regarding the return of a lost article, there is a well-known
saying: “Finder’s keepers, loser’s weepers.” That’s a sound philosophy, isn’t
it? In the world in general it’s accepted. It’s not stealing. But if your mother
lost something, you don’t think that way.

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