Righteous indignation is a feeling which nearly everyone experiences at some point in time. While it stems from the sense that truth and justice are on our side, the reality may be precisely the opposite. In a dispute over money, even a businessman who carefully adheres to the Torah’s business ethics in most situations may veer off track. He might find justification for his actions and say, “Since I’ve been cheated, I will never pay the balance that I owe.”
Often, says the Chofetz Chaim, the rationalizations which lead a person to take the law into his own hands are the results of rechilus. An example is when Reuven sees Shimon overpay for an item at a particular store. Though Shimon has already purchased the item, Reuven tells him, “You know, you could have gotten that for much less at the discount outlet.” Shimon now decides to remedy the situation himself, without consulting a beis din (rabbinical court). He withholds the money which he owes the storekeeper on the theory that he is only keeping what is rightfully his own. Of course, he is wrong. As we learned in the previous segment, there are times when a beis din will not force the storekeeper to refund the amount which was overcharged. In any case, one has no right to withhold payment without the authorization of beis din.
For advice about a purchase to be considered toeless (constructive), there must be a reasonable possibility that it will serve a constructive purpose. If no constructive purpose will be achieved, then the advice can only lead to a dispute between the buyer and the storekeeper. That, in turn, may lead to the type of unilateral actions which we have described. Therefore, says the Chofetz Chaim, we cannot inform someone that he has been cheated if it might lead him to withhold payment or try in some other way to cause the seller unwarranted loss.
The Chofetz Chaim comments, “Many people today stumble terribly in this area, offering their opinion to others regarding their purchases. Their friends ask them whether they paid a fair price and they respond, ‘He cheated you!’ ”
As the Chofetz Chaim explains at length, these people fail to foresee the consequences of what seems like the simple observation of a concerned friend. To make matters worse, they often incite the buyer by telling him, “Give back the merchandise! Tell him you can buy it cheaper somewhere else. If you’re embarrassed to do that, send someone else to him with the merchandise. And if he won’t take it back, don’t finish paying him what you owe.”
What are the consequences of this advice?
The advisor in this story has transgressed the negative commandments: “Do not go as a peddler of gossip” (Vayikra 19:16) and “Do not place a stumbling block before the blind” (ibid. v.14). The Chofetz Chaim focuses on another angle: Is the advisor correct that his friend was actually cheated? Did he study the merchandise well enough to know the makings of this particular product and its market price? Might there be many variations of quality, and therefore price variations, for this product? For instance, one can buy a vacuum cleaner for $150, or for $500. If one pays $500 for a top-of-the-line model, has he been cheated? In addition, observes the Chofetz Chaim, prices can change. Perhaps a certain item has become difficult to obtain, resulting in a price increase.
In the Chofetz Chaim’s illustration, the advisor has given no consideration to these factors. Because he acted without consideration of the halachah, he has enraged the buyer without cause. In all likelihood, the buyer will see no results from his complaint to the storekeeper, and will be left feeling cheated. The resulting conflict and hatred, says the Chofetz Chaim, are rooted in comments which never should have been voiced, even if the purchaser had sought his friend’s opinion. The Chofetz Chaim cautions people to ponder these factors and the relevant laws well before speaking up in such situations. “Then Hashem will assist him that no mishap will come about through him.”