“You shall not oppress your fellow. You shall not rob. The hired worker’s wage shall not remain with you overnight until morning.” (Vayikra 19:13)
The Parsha begins with the obligation of “Kedoshim tihiyu (You shall be holy)”. Holiness is not found solely in our relationship with God, it is also an integral part of our relationship with one another. Whereas, in our relationship with God holiness is manifest in the fulfillment of the mitzvos, in our relationship with our fellow, holiness can be found in treating the other with dignity, honor and respect. As such, the Torah lays down basic requirements. If someone does work for you – pay them in a timely fashion. Don’t take advantage of someone who is in a compromised life situation. Don’t take the possessions of another.
The Torah discusses two forms of theft, gineyva and gezel. Gineyva is theft performed secretly, surreptitiously and without the knowledge of others. Gizeyla is brazen theft; the thief stealing the item often with the knowledge of the owner in a public display of blatant disregard. In the aforementioned verse, the Torah highlights the prohibition of gezel. Jewish law explains that even the gazlan (thief) can do teshuva (repent) by returning the stolen object. There is repentance even for the most brazen acts of theft. Yet the Talmud (Bava Kama 94b) explains that if the stolen object is no longer in existence and the thief comes to return the value of the object, the victim must refuse repayment. The Gemara calls this, Takanas HaShavim (an enactment for the benefit of, or to facilitate the performance of teshuva). In other words, the Rabbis understood that if a person wanted to repent from his sinful way but realized that doing so would cost him a good deal of money and result in financial loss – he would simply abstain from changing. Society has a vested interest in the reformation of the criminal and the Rabbis asked the victim to take a personal loss to enable the thief to change his crooked ways and become a productive cog in the societal wheel.
There are two incredible lessons which emerge from this halacha.
We must invest in each other. The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that when it comes to spirituality, we often assume, “You take care of your neshoma (soul) and I’ll take care of mine.” It is certainly true that we must each exercise personal responsibility over our lives. Only we can determine who we are and who we will become. Only we can decide the nature of the lives we will lead and the quality of the identities we will create. Yet, we must find ways to facilitate growth in our fellow Jew. When the thief shows up at the doorstep of the victim and offers repayment, the victim has the incredible opportunity to do something to help enable change in the thief. By declining the offer of repayment, he is allowing the thief to avoid choosing between spiritual growth the financial loss. The victim invests in the growth of the thief and the world is better for it.
We all want to be good. The Rabbis understood that even the thief wants to come back to God. Even the sinner desires holiness. So, what stops the sinner from returning “home?” It’s hard. It’s challenging to change your lifestyle. It’s difficult to give up behaviors which have been part of your daily rhythm. And its really difficult when change is going to cost money. Even when a person wants to do and be good – if the cost of change is too steep, most people will simply slip back into their established patterns of behavior. The Rabbis stepped in and removed obstacles to change in order to benefit the sinner and greater society. We all want to be good – it’s just that sometimes the obstacles look too difficult overcome.
From this simple phrase, “You shall not rob”, we learn about our inner goodness and the need to bring it out in the other. May we find the strength to believe in each other and in ourselves.