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by Rabbi Yisrael Pesach Feinhandler
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And when you shall sell something to your friend, or buy from your friend do not cheat one another.
Rabbi Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik of Kovna, the grandfather of the renowned Brisker Rav, was extremely knowledgeable in Torah, and besides his knowledge in Torah, was also well-versed in worldly matters. Since he was so brilliant, he was often invited to court to speak in the defense of a Jew on trial. His successes were spectacular, and in every trial he was able to have the accused acquitted.
Once, though, a case came up where a Jew was accused of murder. There was no hope of acquitting him of the crime because there were witnesses and very strong evidence against him. The family turned to Rabbi Yitzchak Zev to defend him, but he refused, saying that there was not a chance that he would be freed. The family pressed him further, saying that a conviction meant not only death for the defendant, but also for his wife and nine children who would have no one to support them. Rabbi Yltzchak Zev, after hearing this, could not refuse, and so he agreed to appear in court to defend the accused man.
The district attorney began his speech and said, "I demand the death penalty." Feeling confident of winning the case this time, the district attorney turned to the rav and said, "Well, Rabbi Yltzchak Zev, what do you have to sing?" The name "Solovei" means a bird which sings well and "loveitchik" means a Levite who sings, referring to the Levites who sang in the Beis Ha-mikdash.
Rabbi Yitzchak Zev replied, "Mr. District Attorney, you think that this time you are going to win, because you are more learned than I am. But that is not true. In this case it is difficult to refute the evidence, and therefore this case offers no proof of your legal knowledge."
The district attorney's pride was kindled and he said, "That is not true. You have not learned law, but I have knowledge of all the law books, and that is the reason that I will be able to defeat you this time."
At this point, Rabbi Yitzchak Zev turned to the judges and said, "Your honors, the defendant is standing in the shadow of death. And not him alone, but also his wife and nine children, after their means of sustenance is cut off. And all this is not because of the truth, but because the district attorney has greater knowledge of law than I have." There was a deafening silence in the courtroom.
The chief justice broke the silence, and called excitedly to Rabbi Yitzchak Zev, "Until when will you destroy worlds with your mouth? Say what you want to say, and do not get sidetracked! Why do you not let the trial run its normal course?"
Rabbi Yitzchak Zev answered, "I have two requests. The first is that the trial be postponed for two weeks. And the second is that I change places with the district attorney. Then we will know who is more learned in law."
That is what happened.
The district attorney became the defense lawyer. Now he tried with all his power to clear the accused, by searching in every possible book. Rabbi Yitzchak Zev, in this circumstance gave prestige to his competitor, and let this honor-chaser think that he had defeated Rabbi Yitzchak Zev. The new district attorney, Rabbi Yitzchak Zev, conducted a poor trial. The defense won, and the accused man was acquitted.
Rabbi Yltzchak Zev, his grandson from Brisk (who had the same name as his grandfather), commented that his grandfather's success was due to the fact that he saw the trial as if he himself was the one facing execution. That is why he was helped by Heaven, to save the man from death. He loved his fellow man as himself, and this is what helped save the man's life.
In marriage we must strive to have that same depth of love for our spouses, as Rabbi Yitzchak Zev had for the condemned man on trial.
"And when you shall sell something to your friend... do not cheat one another." It is written, "This is what [G-d] showed me [in prophecy]: behold; G-d was standing on a wall that was built with a plumb [a string attached to a heavy stone used while building to make sure that the structure is straight]." 1 G-d stood on a wall made up of cheating. [The Hebrew word for plumb, "anach", is similar to the Hebrew word for cheating "ona'ah", and the midrash is suggesting that there was so much cheating that it was as if there was a whole wall built Out Of it2]. The verse continues, "And in His hand was a plumb." This is similar to an anxious debtor who holds the borrower's IOU in his hands waiting to collect [cheating is such a great sin that it brings about immediate punishment]. Rabbi Brechiya said in the name of Rabbi Eliezer, "Concerning all sins it is written, 'He carries [forgives] a sin, and passes by even sins that are rebellious,' 3 but here [in the case of cheating] it is written, 'I shall not continue to forgive him.' " 4 Rabbi Yuden said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan, " 'And their wealth will be exposed ill front of everyone.' 5 In a bushel full of sins, which one is the most accusing? Stealing." [The midrash is using the word for wealth here in its other meaning, which is "gains that are illegally acquired," implying that this money that was not rightfully acquired will be the first to accuse the person who acquired it.]
Compared to people who are guilty of idol worship, murder, and immorality, those guilty of stealing are considered worse than them all.
Rabbi Acha ben Ya'akov said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan, "Twenty four sins were arranged [mentioned for rebuke] by Yechezkel the prophet, and of all the sins, he chose to seal their fate with stealing, as it is written, 'And behold, I will strike with my hand your wealth' "6 [referring to wealth acquired by illegal means]. Therefore Moshe warned Israel, "...do not cheat one another."
How could cheating have spread so widely that it was as if there was a whole wall built out of it? Why is cheating such a serious sin that it should be immediately punished by G-d? Why is G-d not willing to forgive a person for the sin of cheating when He forgives other sins? In what way does stealing "accuse" a person more than other sins? In what way is it worse than the three capital sins: idol worship, murder, and immorality? Why does stealing cause a person's fate to be sealed?
Our Sages say that cheating was so widespread that it was as if a whole wall of it existed. The reason for this is that cheating and stealing are rooted in the strong desire for money that lies deep in a person's soul. Because of this, once someone sees that others are accumulating wealth in immoral ways, it spreads like fire, and he tells himself that he too, is allowed to do so. This continues until theft runs rampant in society.
The reason that cheating and stealing are so serious is because they reveal the trait of cruelty, which is not a Jewish characteristic. One person toils and sweats for his money, and another person comes along and takes it away. This is real cruelty, since the person from whom the money was stolen is left with a broken heart because all his toil has come to nothing. Even though a person has the desire for wealth, to be so cruel as to take it from others who toiled for it, is certainly unjust. Therefore G-d stands waiting to punish those who act with such cruelty.
This could also be the reason why G-d does not forgive this sin, even though He is usually ready to forgive when a person sins. In other sins one is harming only himself, or they are done spontaneously, because of desires that are hard to control. But with stealing and cheating, the harm is done to others, and when a person cheats or steals, he usually does not act on an uncontrolled impulse, but rather racks his brains until he finds a cunning way of depriving others of what they have.
Now we can understand what our Sages meant when they said, "A bushel full of sins, which one is the most accusing? Stealing." When a person steals he is using the most precious gift that he has been given by Hashem - wisdom - to harm other people, by taking away their possessions. Not only that, but he also shows that he lacks belief in G-d. If he had genuine faith, he would not have to steal, since he would know that Hashem sustains each of us, and would feel assured that there is no need to transgress in order to gain sustenance.
Our Sages say, "All of a person's sustenance is budgeted to him from Rosh Hashanah to Rosh Hashanah,". 7 Every penny a person receives during the year is decided on in advance, on Rosh Hashanah. What good will it do for someone to cheat or steal, since that money was not allotted to him anyway? If it is not destined for him, he will lose it through unexpected expenses or in some other way, so that the amount which he gains benefit from, will ultimately be the amount set aside for him according to G-d's yearly calculation.
"Compared to people who are guilty of idol worship, murder, and immorality, those guilty of stealing are worse than them all." Idol worship stems from the desire for promiscuity, as our Sages have said, "Our forefathers worshipped idols only to allow themselves immorality in public." 8 Murder is usually motivated by anger which is an integral part of human nature, as is the desire for immorality. Stealing, however, is not a simple expression of a basic desire in man, but rather he must cultivate within himself a certain kind of cunning which allows him to take advantage of other people. Since a person must intentionally cultivate in himself the ability to steal, in some ways it is a more severe transgression than the other three, which require no refinement. Therefore, the act of stealing is considered very serious in G-d's eyes.
Why does stealing cause a person's fate to be sealed? Stealing testifies to the fact that evil is part of the transgressor's character, because it is habitual by its nature. One who steals is kept far from repentance, since the money he steals ends up blinding his eyes to the truth and to the seriousness of his behavior. He will justify his actions in a thousand ways, and therefore continue in his crooked path. For a person in such a situation, G-d has no choice but to seal his fate for the worse.
The remedy for selfishness which leads to stealing and cheating, is to develop in oneself a deep appreciation and respect for other people's property and privileges. Concern for others is also one of the basic principles of marriage. A person who is selfish does not make a good spouse and must work on seeing the value in people other than himself.
The Torah states it succinctly: "You shall love your friend as you love yourself'. 9 This certainly can be applied to marriage. Think of how you want your spouse to treat you, and treat your spouse in that way. Would you like your spouse to greet you warmly when you come home? Then do so for your spouse. Would you like your spouse to keep a tidy house? Then do so yourself and be sure that you put everything in its proper place. Would you like your spouse to be patient when you make a mistake? Then you should be patient yourself.
Both husband and wife have certain reasonable expectations in marriage. Let us give a few examples. A husband has the right to learn Torah, to have some time for recreation on his own, and to have his food and clothes prepared for him. The wife has the right to receive love and affection, to be taken care of financially, and not to be abused verbally or physically.
We must realize that each spouse has his or her own individual rights, and that not granting these to our spouses, is like stealing from them what is rightfully theirs. We have learned in the above midrash the severity of stealing, and refusing a spouse their rights would fall straight into that category. "A bushel full of sins, which one is the most accusing? Stealing." When a person does not give to a spouse what is undeniably owed to her, he is causing himself to be accused in Heaven, and who can endure such an accusation? We must always remind ourselves to respect our spouse's rights and privileges.
Our goal in marriage should be to give and not to take. If both partners have that attitude, they will make each other happy and their marriage will be one of mutual contentment.
1. Amos 7:7
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Shema Yisrael Torah Network