to respect a thief

Friday, 21 February, 2020 - 4:19 am

 I know, one must be careful not to speak about the more negative aspects of human beings, but since we are standing right before the Shabbat of Parashat Mishpatim, the Parasha where we received the mitzvahs relating to interpersonal relationships and ethics, I thought there is room for some critique.
Facebook is filled with good deeds – chock full. Every minute a new initiative appears – fixing an air-conditioner for a Holocaust survivor, helping a woman whose house burned down, saying Tehillim for someone who is ill etc. etc. But, as mentioned, there are also unpleasant phenomena. And the most prominent ones, in my opinion, are talkbacks that insult the writer personally, instead of relating to what he wrote.
If someone wrote something sarcastic, not nice, even offensive, we can answer him to the point, respond to his words, argue if necessary – but we must not insult the writer personally! And that includes refraining from expressing a “professional” opinion regarding the state of his mental health and “blessing” him vigorously.
In this week’s Parasha, the Torah says that a thief who steals a sheep pays back four times its worth, and one who steals an ox pays back five times its worth. Rashi brings the statement of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai, who explains this law thus: “Hashem maintains the dignity of His creations. [For] an ox, who walks on its own and the thief is not degraded by carrying it on his shoulder – the thief pays five times the amount. [For] a sheep, which he carries on his shoulder – he pays four, since he suffered degradation due to it.” In other words, the fact that the thief had to degrade himself and carry the sheep on his shoulder in public lessens his punishment.
But, wait a minute – we’re talking about a thief. Why is Hashem concerned for his dignity? He decided to steal – he should suffer the consequences of his actions!
Friends, he didn’t write a post; he just stole – simply stole something that doesn’t belong to him. And the Torah commands us to maintain his dignity.

The Rebbe explains that this explanation is very appropriate for Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, for it is about him that the Gemara says in tractate Brachot; “They said about him, about Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, that no person ever managed to greet him before he greeted him first.” If someone is quick to greet any person in the street, that shows that he really and truly respects every person as he is, regardless of his deeds, ethnic origin or religion. It makes sense that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai should be the one to find a way to respect even a thief.

Friends, we have what to learn from him.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

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