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Parashat Vayikra 5774 — 03/05/2014

Parashat Vayikra 5774 — 03/05/2014

He [the Kohen who offers a bird offering] shal remove its crop with its innards, and he shall throw it near the Altar toward the east, to the place of the ashes (1:16)

R. Tanchuma bar Chanilai said: This bird flies all over the world, eating on every side, and it eats stolen and robbed property.  The Holy One Blessed is He says: Since this crop is full of stolen and robbed property, it may not be offered up on the Altar… But an animal is raised at its owner’s feeding trough and not … from the robbed or stolen,  therefore it can be offered in its entirety… (Vayikra Rabbah 3:4)

No, I haven’t forgotten the Chafetz Chaim Gd forbid!!  He is quoted by the Artscroll team in their analysis of the Midrash passage:  The Chafetz Chaim, in his book on ethics and honesty, Sfat Tamim [Upright Lips (RAR)], §3, speaks at length regarding the grave sin of theft, and how it prevents one’s prayers from being answered… Theft erects a barrier between Gd and us, through which prayer and devotion will not penetrate.

Now the punishment for theft of property is that one is fined, generally by having to pay double the value of the stolen object.  There are many, many punishments in the Torah that are much more severe than this – death for desecrating Shabbat or for adultery, “death by the hand of Heaven” for leaving out one of the spices in the incense, flogging for muzzling one’s animal while he is threshing with it.  Nonetheless, theft is singled out as creating a barrier between the thief and Gd.  How can we understand this?

I’d like to cite two principles from our tradition.  First, whatever we have is what Gd has given us, and what Gd gives us is exactly what we need for our own personal growth and for us to play our unique role in Gd’s plan for His creation.  Traditionally, this allotment is fixed at Rosh haShanah; only the amount that we give to charity and spend on mitzvah observance (e.g. purchasing a lulav and etrog) will vary – if we spend more of our resources in these areas, more resources will be made available to us.  The second principle flows from the first: if somebody takes something that belongs to somebody else, Gd is “troubled” to remove that resource from the thief and to return it to the victim.  Sometimes this will involve third parties.  Sometimes a soul will have to come back for another lifetime to make amends for a misdeed in an earlier lifetime.

Clearly a thief does not hold to these principles.  The thief is working in a zero-sum game – whatever he gains, someone else loses and vice versa.  He clearly doesn’t believe that resources are meted out to us by the same Intelligence that created and sustains the universe, and very likely doesn’t believe that resources are given to be used properly, which means in accord with Gd’s Will.  In other words, by his actions the thief denies Gd’s supervision of the affairs of creation.

Now Judaism seems to be of two minds when it comes to private property.  On the one hand, the assumption behind the very strict laws regarding theft in Jewish law is that private property must be respected.  If you damage somebody else’s property you must make good the damage, even if it was unintentional.  On the other hand, we are constantly reminded that everything belongs to Gd, including ourselves, body and soul.  Mine is the silver and Mine is the gold (Chaggai 2:8).  The land … shall not be sold permanently, for the land is Mine.  For you are strangers and sojourners with Me (Lev 25:23 describing the Sabbatical and Jubilee years).  And perhaps more explicitly, in Pirke Avot (5:13) There are four character types: (a) The one who says “What is mine is mine and what is yours is yours” is average, but some say this is the character of Sodom … (c) “What is mine is yours and what is yours is yours” is a chasid (one who goes beyond the letter of the law and does not insist on his full rights).  The fourth type in Pirke Avot is the thief, who says “What’s yours is mine and what’s mine is mine.”

I believe what we have here is not a contradiction, but two different perspectives on the material world.  From the perspective of someone whose primary focus is on the material world, there have to be clear boundaries on who owns what, so that one can order and arrange and plan appropriate production for the needs of the individual and the community.  And this is all well and good and necessary, and, as I want to emphasize, it is completely supported by Torah.

On the other hand, all this material arranging and rearranging is empty and futile unless it is done for a higher purpose.  Our Sages tell us that this higher purposes is progressively displaying/reflecting Gd’s infinite creative intelligence in as pure a form as possible in our action and in the harmonious functioning of society.  Furthermore, an inordinate focus on one’s rights in the material world leaves one chained to that world and to those goods, to the great detriment of the soul.  For if we live on the material level alone, cut off from the infinite source of all things material, we are indeed locked into a zero-sum game.  Worse, it’s a zero-sum game where all “winnings” are ephemeral, as they cannot accompany the soul after it divests itself from the material body.  It’s a zero-sum game where in fact everyone ends up with zero!

A wise man once said, whatever we put our attention on grows stronger in our life.  If we put our attention on the material world, that will grow stronger in one way or another, while if we put our attention on Gd and our own spiritual nature, then that is what will grow stronger.  If a person works honestly and always bears in mind that everything he does is for the purpose of sanctifying Gd’s Name, then he will be spiritually satisfied with whatever results Gd chooses to give him.  If the purpose of (even) that honest work is to amass wealth, then we may well be successful, but that success will come at the expense of our soul’s relationship with Gd.  If our wealth is gotten dishonestly, then the negative influence we have created will damage our spiritual standing that much more.  Until our hands are clean, our prayers can have little effect.  If we maintain and deepen our relationship with Gd on the other hand, then all the blessings of Heaven and earth can be ours!

Shemoneh Esrei

Do it for the sake of Your Name, Do it for the sake of Your Right Hand

Do it for the sake of Your Holiness, Do it for the sake of Your Torah.

So that Your devotees may Your Right Hand save, and answer me!

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, Hashem, my Rock and my Redeemer. (Psalms 19)

Mar, son of Ravina, closes his concluding prayer with these lines.  I think it’s a fitting culmination to all we have been trying to accomplish with our prayers.  For the truth is, even if we’re praying for our gross material needs – food, shelter, clothing – we should be asking for these things not as an end in themselves, but rather to enable us to do what Gd wants us to do.  And, as we just discussed, that is to sanctify Gd’s Name by all our thoughts, speech and actions.

The prayer makes this motivation explicit, with two pairs of attributes of Gd that we wish to emphasize.  Interestingly, it appears to me that in each pair the first item is the “essential” attribute, and the second is the corresponding “active” attribute.  Thus Gd’s Name is what Gd is (not that Gd can be defined in any way, but somehow, in a way we probably cannot understand as long as we are finite creatures), whereas Gd’s Right Hand represents His action in the world.  In the same way, Gd is Holy (Gd is the ultimate source of all Holiness), when that Holiness stirs and begins to move within itself, that is Torah, the blueprint of creation.  We ask Gd to sustain and nurture us, both physically and spiritually, in order that His fulness may become manifest in both being and action.