Could I Have Known That Thieves Would Come?

The people of Sodom were “exceedingly” wicked.

What did that wickedness entail?  The Talmud has many suggestions.  I’ll focus here on one:

Raba expounded: What is meant by the verse, “In the dark they dig through houses, which they had marked for themselves in the daytime: they know not the light?” (Job 24:16)  This teaches that [the people of Sodom] used to cast [envious] eyes at wealthy men, and entrust balsamum into their keeping, which they placed in their storerooms. In the evening they would come and smell it out like dogs, as it is written, “They return at evening: they make a noise like a dog, and go round about the city.” (Psalm 59:7)

R. Yossi taught this in Sepphoris. That night [after his lecture] three hundred [houses] were broken into in Sepphoris. So they came and harassed him.  They said to him, ‘You have shown a way to thieves!’ He replied, ‘Could I have known that thieves would come?’

R Yossi expounded on the Sodomite’s sneak-thievery before his students, but he never expected that among those students there would be some who would hear the sermon not as a cautionary tale but as a how-to manual!

The contemporary scholar R. Yitzchak Zilberstein, commenting on this passage, takes R. Yossi’s response at face value:  he did not know that thieves would come, but had he known he would have avoided giving that sermon.  Following other commentators, R. Zilberstein adds R. Yossi would have avoided giving this sermon because it was not a legal sermon, with important practical ramifications for honest businessmen, but rather a homiletical one.

If we take a step back for a moment, however, this whole interpretation is curious.  We could understand if Rabbi Yossi had been surprised to learn that one or two students had put his sermon to ill use, but with 300 houses robbed the problem seems more widespread. How could Rabbi Yossi have been oblivious to the sinful proclivities of so many beit-midrash goers?  Perhaps R. Yossi believed that those who seek out Torah study are  presumed righteous in other respects, until proven otherwise.  Who can guess – who wants to suspect- that thieves will be in our own batei midrash?  But as it turned out, we can easily find the sins of Sodom replicated in our own community.

This lesson is obvious but easily forgotten:  It is easy to turn criticism outwards, but the reason the story of Sodom is included in the Torah is, arguably, not to help us feel superior to the wicked city, but rather to motivate us to carry on our true mission – to “instruct [our] children and [our] posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right…” (Gen. 18:19).

The story of Rabbi Yossi ends with a disturbing image:

When R. Yossi died, the gutters of Sepphoris ran with blood.

R. Zilberstein explains this line in connection with a follow-up to his original question: if a teacher teaches about fraud, which R. Zilberstein concludes is permissible due to the wide availability of such information, does he nonetheless require kaparrah, atonement, if a student uses the information learned for ill?  He cites various commentators, some who see the report of blood in the streets as an emphasis of Rabbi Yossi’s greatness, others who see it as a criticism of his actions in this instance. In the end he centers on the view that Rabbi Yossi was punished for what he did, but not simply because he had given advice to thieves. Rather, the style of thievery he inadvertently encouraged, digging tunnels, turned each wayward student into a ba ba-mahteret, a tunneling thief whom the Torah permits the householder to kill (Exodus 22:1) (according to the Rabbis, because the thief can be presumed to pose a threat to the householder’s life).  Rabbi Yossi was held responsible not for inadvertently causing theft, but for inadvertently risking lives.

So far so good.  I hope you will bear with me into the fraught realm of current events.  Rabbi Zilberstein is likely correct that people today do not need Torah lectures to devise fraudulent schemes. But there is another a category of sins that people can learn much better in the Beit Midrash than outside of it:  actions that stem not from profit motives but from religious ones.  And in that arena, it is often lives, and not property, at stake.

The trauma of the past few weeks has brought out some disturbing statements from rabbis in our collective beit midrash.  The thought of Rabbis promoting extrajudicial killing is frightening enough, and the inevitability of killing innocents in the process only compounds the horror. Even those not calling for blood may encourage ostensibly theoretical opinions that lead easily down a road to violence.  In these circumstances rabbis cannot simply disclaim responsibility by saying “could I have known that murderers would come?”

May we speedily see the day when the streets of Jerusalem, and Sepphoris, cease to run with blood.

About the Author
Miriam Gedwiser teaches at the Drisha Institute for Jewish Education in New York City, where she lives with her spouse and three children.
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