27 Shevat 5780

February 21, 2020

Case number one: A person was standing outside the house of prostitution, trying to decide:  Should I or shouldn’t I? Should I go in or not? The person said: I am not married, and so I won’t be breaking trust with anyone if I go in.  Right?  And besides, I am in a strange city where nobody knows me, so there is no risk of being embarrassed.  What should I do? Should I go in or not?

Case number two: A person finds a wallet on the street.  The wallet is opened and lo and behold, it contains hundreds of dollars and it also contains the name and address of the person who lost it.  What should one do? The peson who found the wallet is a very poor person – hundreds of dollars in debt.  And so one experiences temptation.  If the person keeps the cash and throws away the credit cards, no one will ever know. Should the person do this or not? How will one decide?

Case number three: The person gets up early in the morning, much earlier than normal. The person says, “I have to get to the field before anyone else arrives so that I can tithe the harvest before anyone else is there.” The reason the person wants to do it early is that no one else will see it because person wants to carry out the mitzvah of tithing without getting any praise or publicity for it. The person wants to do it simply because it is a mitzvah, and so one has to hurry and get to the field before anyone else is around.What do these three cases have in common?  Two things.

The first is that all three scenarios are found in the Talmud.  In Pesachim, 113a, Rabbi Yochanan says: There are three people whom God praises every day: The single person who lives in a large city and does not sin, the poor person who finds lost property and returns it, and the wealthy person who tithes in secret so that no one will praise that person. The second thing that these three cases have in common is that they are temptations that occur when we are in private; temptations that we could probably get away with it if we wanted to without being caught. Who would know if the single person who is in a big city where no one knows them gave in to temptation? Who would know if the poor person kept the cash and threw away the wallet? Who would care if the rich person tithed in public and people praised them?

The rabbis teach us that what these three people whom God loves have in common is that they all face temptation when no one else is around.  In all three cases they could probably have gotten away with it.  And in all three cases, they must have been sorely tempted. In all three cases, after wrestling with their conscience, they said no and this is why God is so very proud of them. It is hard enough not to sin when people are watching you. It is a lot harder to resist temptation when there is no one around to catch you.  And THAT is one of the lessons that is to be found in this week’s Torah reading, Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:18). Our portion contains the civil and the criminal laws of the Torah.  It deals with torts, and accidents, and other things, which, in most cultures, are considered the domain of secular law.  The Torah deals with all of life, and these things are part of life, and so the Torah deals with these things too.

The portion contains a very strange law.  It makes a distinction between the robber and the thief, and it provides different punishments for each. Which do you think is worse: to hold a person up with a gun and take their money or to slip into one’shouse when no one is around and steal their money? You might argue that the robber is worse than the thief.  After all, if one uses a gun one may be endangering the life of one’s victim as well as taking one’s property.  Yet, the Torah does not decide that way. The Torah decides that the thief is worse than the robber.  If you rob someone, all you have to do, according to this week’s Torah reading, is pay back what you have taken. But if you slip into one’s house at night, when no one is around, you have to pay back double for what you took. Why? What’s the logic? Why is the thief considered worse than the robber?

The answer is found in the Talmud, in Bava Kama, 79b. It says there: “The thief treats the honor of the slave as equal to the honor of the owner.  By this, Rabbi Zakai means: that when the slave, i.e. the human being, the police, are around, he does not rob.  He is afraid of getting caught.  But when there are no police around, he is not afraid to steal.  In other words, he does not care that God may be watching. As such, to sin in public is bad, but to be afraid to sin in public and yet not be afraid to sin in private is worse, because it shows contempt for God, God who sees everywhere.
I think what Rabbi Yochanan is saying in a negative way is, what the Talmud is saying in a positive way, in this passage from the Tractate of Pesachim with which I began: that God takes pleasure in those who do mitsvahs or who avoid sins, even in private, even when there is little likelihood that they will be caught, simply because they revere God. They are the people who hear God’s Voice inside them, even when, perhaps especially when, they are alone.

May all of us, whenever we stand at moral crossroads in our lives, whenever we stand before the temptation to do something which is wrong, but which we might be able to get away with here on earth, when that happens to us, may we withdraw from all the noise around us, and may we listen. May we listen to the Voice inside, for if we do, if we really listen, then we will know what to do or not do and God will bless us for our decision.