A Gold Standard for Jewish Conduct

The name Yaron Oren-Pines may not be immediately familiar. Oren-Pines is the Israeli-American electrical engineer from Silicon Valley who, when ventilators were in short supply, tweeted that he could produce them. Just a few days later, the state of New York paid Oren-Pines $69 million to make 1,450 ventilators, at a cost of $47,656 each — triple the normal price for a ventilator. That’s right: in the midst of a calamitous, life-threatening pandemic, Oren-Pines allegedly saw fit to charge New York three times the going rate for life-saving equipment. The money that Oren-Pines received for the ventilator deal was the largest single payment made by the New York Department of Health during the emergency procurement process.

Oren-Pines, however, had no prior experience working with government or making medical devices, and no ventilators were ever forthcoming.

Understandably, New York is now trying to get its money back. Officials won’t say how much the state has been able to retrieve, but reports confirm that there are “remaining issues.”

Oren-Pines has refused to speak to the press. Hence, as things currently stand, it appears that Oren-Pines misrepresented that he could make ventilators, assured New York that ventilators were on the way when they were not, engaged in price gouging at a time of widespread suffering and death, and is now seemingly equivocating about whether he needs to repay fully. Let’s hope that subsequent accounts will paint a rosier picture of his conduct, but, if they do not, Oren-Pines is obviously implicated in a range of significant ethical infractions.

We Jews have a term for this. It’s called “chillul HaShem” — a desecration of the Divine name. A chillul HaShem is committed when our behavior is sufficiently woeful that it degrades the name of God in the eyes of others, since rules for conduct are seen to originate with God. A chillul HaShem is the opposite of a “kiddush HaShem” — acting in a way that exalts God’s name. And it just so happens that the concepts of chillul HaShem and kiddush HaShem emerge from this week’s Torah portion, Emor.

The Jerusalem Talmud relates an incident that Oren-Pines might do well to contemplate:

Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach one day asked his disciples to buy him a camel from a merchant. When they brought him the animal, they gleefully announced that they had found a precious stone in its collar. “Did the seller know of this gem?” asked the rabbi. Receiving a negative answer, he called out angrily, “Do you think me a barbarian that I should take advantage of the letter of the law by which the gem is mine together with the camel? Return the gem to the merchant immediately.” When the merchant received the jewel back he exclaimed: “Blessed is the God of Shimon ben Shetach”…

In every financial transaction, let each of us so carry ourselves that people will be moved to bless God’s name for having had dealings with us. That’s the Jewish way – or at least it ought to be. Anything else is, by definition, a chillul HaShem – unworthy conduct that the Torah does not take lightly.

Rabbi Danny Schiff

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