Don’t Help the Thief
There is another positive commandment, that is learned in the beginning of Vayikra. This refers to the instruction to return a stolen object to its rightful owner. The Talmud notes a redundancy in the wording of that particular verse. The Torah says that one must return the stolen article, “that he stole.” It would seem to indicate that which would appear to be obvious. If one has a stolen object in his possession, he must be the one that stole it!
The Talmud is teaching us that we must see to it, that the stolen object be returned to its rightful owner, even if we did not steal it. There are even laws forbidding us from purchasing articles from a known thief. If nobody ever bought that which the thief chose to steal, he would have no reason to steal.
The laws related to theft are very numerous. The Torah levies a monetary penalty of paying double the amount stolen, as long as the object is still in possession of the thief. A society must not tolerate wrongfully taking what does not belong to someone. I recall my teacher, Rabbi Starr, of blessed memory, telling us about his own childhood memory. He lived in a “Fiddler on the Roof” type town where everyone knew everyone else. One day, they caught a robber, and held him in custody. The entire town stopped working because they were all curious to see what a thief looked like!
Disrespecting the property of others, represents a breakdown of society. The fate of the generation of the Flood, was sealed when they were guilty of stealing.
The simple command to return to its rightful owner, stolen objects, carries with it, far greater ramifications than we realize.