Vayishlach: It pains to advertise!

“Tis the season,” advertisers say, to buy, buy, buy! They’ll use many techniques to encourage us to do so.  These will certainly include extolling – and exaggerating -- the benefits of their goods and services, while remaining silent about defects and limitations.  There’s nothing surprising about this; “Buyer, beware!” is, and likely always has been, a necessary marketplace motto. 

But, how does it square with Jewish ethics, especially when Jews have been accused of “sharp business practices” for millennia?  We can learn Jewish advertising values from this week’s Torah portion.

Before meeting his brother Esau, Jacob sought to mollify him by giving cattle as a gift.  In instructing his servants how to present them, Jacob told them to put distance between each group of cattle in order to maximize their impact in Esau’s eyes.  (Genesis 32:14-22).  In his Jewish Encyclopedia of Moral and Ethical Issues, Nahum Amsel argues that this was a permissible case of putting a gift in the best possible light without misrepresenting it.  Had Jacob caused Esau to believe that the herd was larger than it really was (and thus thought the present greater than it actually was, causing underserved goodwill), it would not have been proper.  Amsel concludes that the line between showing a product in its best light and misrepresenting and getting undeserved goodwill is subtle and must be determined for each product.    

What I find most instructive and compelling about this analysis is its subjective rather than objective focus.  For Judaism, the most important “test” of advertising propriety is not content but impact.  Does it mislead?  Does it create unwarranted impressions and/or expectations of value, performance, or capacity?  Smart but honest business lies at the very heart of Jewish ethics.  Indeed, according to the Talmud (Shabbat 31a), the very first inquiry put to a soul after departing the body is, “Did you conduct your business ethically?”

We see this same kind of outward-looking analysis in many other standards of permissible/impermissible Jewish conduct.  Can we keep a found object?  The most important determinant is whether the person who lost it would likely expect to be able to retrieve it.  Can we praise an imprudent purchase, even though the Torah admonishes not to deal falsely or deceitfully with one another (Leviticus 19:11)?  Usually, yes, because respecting the purchaser’s feelings is more important than strict honesty regarding the wisdom of a purchase.  (Talmud, Ketubot 17A)

There’s nothing wrong with putting our best foot forward, so long as we don’t disguise or conceal the other one!

The larger lesson, it seems to me, is that Judaism requires us to carefully and continuously consider how our words and actions – even our self-promotions and “sales” – will affect others.  At a minimum, we must be careful to “do no harm” when we put ourselves and what we have to offer into the marketplace.  More than that, though, we must be a mensch with other people!  We must not do to them what we would not want done to us (said Hillel).  

‘Tis always the season to give that gift.

Shabbat shalom.   

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