In introducing the very first law of our sidra encompassing the primary Torah source material for civil legislation, R’ Samson Rafael Hirsch has this to say: “When G‑D’s Torah wants to teach principles of rights and humaneness demanded for respect of the individual, it begins with the criminal. And it takes as its example the criminal against property (i.e. the thief) who in all other societies is threatened with the direst punishment to body and freedom and shows us G‑D’s ideal of rights and appropriate treatment”.
R’ Hirsch’s forceful words, written in the 19th century, still resonate today. How else is it possible that in that ‘beacon of enlightenment’, the USA, a man such as Shalom Rubashkin, convicted in 2010 of white-collar financial fraud, could receive an incongruous (not to mention disproportionate) 27 years imprisonment behind bars? Already 3,000 years ago in the land of Israel, such a custodial sentence for larceny and fraud on even the most grandiose scale would have been unthinkable. In Judaism, where the punishment must fit the crime, it simply doesn’t exist. Yet the contemporary free world, so doctrinaire when it comes to certain social-reform causes, hasn’t yet got its head around a just penal system.
Does Judaism, then, condone theft? Hardly! Our rabbis declare that the Great Flood was unleashed by Heaven principally on account of one sin – robbery. Petty theft, to be precise. Again, to paraphrase R’ Hirsch: “niggling, petty crimes of borderline legality which serve to corrupt the moral fabric of society”. Everybody did it! And the world could no longer survive. How much more reprehensible is larceny and fraud on a grand scale.
Moreover theft and robbery differ from murder or adultery in one important aspect. These latter crimes generally have a motive of passion. A murderer hates his victim with – in his eyes – due cause. An adulterer lusts after the object of his desire. A thief, on the other hand, generally has no positive or negative feelings towards his victim; rather, he is indifferent to him. Often he doesn’t even know him. Herein lies the great evil of larceny. It deadens the feeling of human kinship in the perpetrator. As Elie Wiesel famously said “The opposite of love is not hate but indifference!”
Comes along the Torah and offers a radical rehabilitation, much more confronting than a custodial sentence (which isn’t rehabilitative at all). Firstly bring the larcenist face to face with his victim and his demons. Make him give to his victim, proportionally to what he took from him. (R’ Dessler emphasises in his writings that giving leads to loving – the Hebrew word hav, ‘to give’ also is the root of ‘to love’.) If he says he is unable to make restitution (e.g. he has syphoned off his money into his wife’s/child’s bank account) an extraordinary mandate comes into play, even more effective than an impersonal community-service. The thief is taken into the custody of the Beit Din and is “sold” into the family of a fellow-Jew (ideally the victim himself!) to pay off his debt to the victim. Just as he objectified his victim so he is objectified.
However, that is where all humiliation ends. True the Torah calls him an eved ivri, a “Hebrew servant” and in a sense this is what he is – he loses his freedom (much as in the jail system). But the similarity ends there. He does not forfeit his human dignity. He devotes himself to the needs of his householder and in return the host provides him with bed and board, at least equivalent to that which he and his family enjoy. If there is a bed shortage, the ‘servant’ must not be the one to sleep on the floor! The ‘master’ must not give the ‘servant’ degrading or humiliating work to do. After a maximum six years the ‘master’ must send away his ex-‘servant’ with gifts as befits not a servant but a treasured employee. In fact he is treated so well that the Torah anticipates the possibility that he may not want to go! “I love my ‘master’ … I won’t leave!” (21:5). A human relationship has been forged. Indifference to fellow-man has gradually given way to love.
Not surprising, then, that the laws of eved ivri take pride of place in this sidra, doyen of civil legislation.
To declare that the Torah is (only) 3,300 years ahead of its time is to affront the Torah. One wonders when the world will finally catch up!