Amidst its discussion in Parashat Behar of the yovel (jubilee year), the Torah commands, “al tonu ish et achiv” (25:14), forbidding charging or paying unfair prices when making a transaction. The context of this command is the law requiring the return of sold land on the yovel, a law which makes the value of property dependent upon the number of years remaining until the yovel. The Torah demands that buyers and sellers take this factor into account when setting a price, so that buyers pay a fair price and sellers receive a fair price.
Several verses later (25:17), the Torah appears to reiterate this command, stating, “ve-lo tonu ish et amito.” The Gemara in Masekhet Bava Metzia (58b) famously explains that in truth, this second command introduces an entirely different prohibition – that of ona’at devarim, which forbids causing one’s fellow distress through words, such as by speaking hurtfully. Whereas the first verse forbids ona’at mammon – causing one’s fellow financial harm through improper conduct in the marketplace, the second forbids inflicting emotional harm with words.
Rav Azariah Figo, in Bina Le-ittim (derush 68) offers an additional explanation for the repetition of this command. He notes that the first verse speaks of mistreating “achiv” (literally, “one’s brother”), while the second uses the word “amito” (“one’s fellow,” or “one’s comrade”). These two terms at first appear synonymous, but Rav Figo suggests that the word “amit” connotes a degree of resemblance between the two parties. Whereas “achiv” speaks of kinship, and this term is often used (particularly here in Parashat Behar) in reference to the kinship that exists among all members of our nation, the word “amit” indicates similarity. Rav Figo thus proposes that the second verse, which forbids mistreating “ish et amito,” forbids deceiving somebody who is himself guilty of such behavior. People might feel justified in deceiving or taking advantage of somebody who acts this way towards others, figuring that such a person does not deserve to be dealt with honestly or justly. The Torah therefore repeats, “ve-lo tonu ish et amito” – that we may not deceive or take advantage of even those who have themselves treated others unfairly, who are guilty of the unethical practices which we might wish to utilize in our dealings with him. The fact that somebody has acted improperly towards others does not allow us to act improperly towards him.
This second verse concludes, “and you shall fear your God, for I am the Lord your God.” Rav Figo explains that since one might feel comfortable and at ease deceiving somebody who is dishonest to others, the Torah urges us to “fear your God,” to remember that we are accountable to the Almighty. The standards to which we are bound are those set by the Almighty, not those set by the people around us. Even when we see others act unethically, we must conduct ourselves with yir’at Shamayim, genuine fear of God, adhering to the strict standards of integrity and morality which the Almighty demands from His treasured nation.