Based on Parasha U’Pishra by Rabbi Moshe Grylak
by Braha Bender
Here’s a shocker for you: the goal of Jewish law is not to dole out justice. Why? Torah explains that the ultimate consequences of our actions are meted out by the heavenly court, not the earthly ones.
Since the Almighty is the only one Who can see into a person’s heart, He is the only one Who can mete out truly accurate reparation. What were the criminal’s true motives? How much influence did nature and nurture have on his behavior? Justice is a Jewish value, but not justice determined by the limited perceptions of human beings. True justice is exclusively in G-d’s hands.
A functional society demands legal recourse, but not to satisfy a lust for vengeance or to feed a sense of self-righteousness on the part of the victim. A lust for vengeance is a terrible quality; self-righteousness vis-a-vis another person is judgmental, arrogant, and quite possibly delusional. Worst of all, these drives leave G-d out of the picture.
By focusing on rehabilitative, educational consequences rather than vengeful ones, the Jewish legal system is designed to serve the criminal just as much as the victim. The victim receives due recompense whenever possible, but just as importantly, the criminal is aided in reclaiming his spiritual heritage as a member of Torah society. The ultimate objective of Jewish law is for all the Jewish People to become “educated and habituated in the character trait of kindness and compassion, for this is a praiseworthy character trait.” (Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah 66)
An example of the unique course of Jewish law takes place in Parashas Mishpatim.
In Parashas Mishpatim, we are instructed that a thief must “pay double” (Exodus-Shmos 22:3) the monetary value of what he or she stole. For example, if a diamond worth ten thousand dollars was stolen, twenty thousand dollars must be paid in recompense. The same applies to almost any object stolen - a towel, a car, even the bright, juicy oranges growing in the quiet orchard at the side of the road – nobody’s looking! But that doesn’t make it right. You are still accountable to “pay double”.
The reason is simple. Paying back double what he stole gives the thief a taste of his own medicine, so to speak. By paying back the monetary value of the item which he stole, plus the exact same amount in addition, the thief’s sense of loss parallels the loss he inflicted on another.
When stolen livestock is slaughtered or sold, the fine goes up to four times the original monetary value, and sometime five (ibid 21:37).
Why do the legal consequence become more severe when the stolen livestock is killed or sold? Rebbe Akiva explains: “On account of what did they say: if he slaughtered and sold he pays fines of four times or five times over? Because the sin became rooted.” Every act that distances the property further from its rightful owner is an additional act of theft and an additional sin. When the thief slaughters the animal, he deepens his accountability and his fine deepens in kind. These consequences bring home the weight of each action taken.
Yet suddenly, when it comes to the legal consequences for slaughtering or selling a stolen sheep, the tune changes. The Torah distinguishes between the slaughtered or sold sheep and the slaughtered or sold ox. The slaughtered or sold ox demands five times the original monetary value, whereas the sheep demands only four. Why?
Even in these most extreme of cases, the price of human dignity isn’t ignored. Stealing an ox is a matter of leading or herding the beast away. Stealing a sheep is another matter entirely. Sheep thievery requires heaving the bleating, filthy thing unto ones’ shoulders and hauling it off as fast as possible - probably tripping and sweating bullets every step of the way - and quite possibly being seen and made fun of by other people. And do you have any idea how sheep smell?
Torah doesn’t ignore this debasing experience. The embarrassment in and of itself is accounted as part of the fine…out of respect for the thief!
What’s the lesson here? Imagine being so degraded and desperate that you would consider stealing to get by. It’s a terrible way to live. It’s probably safe to assume that any and all sense of genuine self-respect is long since gone out the window. And here the Torah comes along and says, “Hey, sheep thief! You pay less because your dignity was injured.”
The message is that the thief’s dignity matters. The message is that the thief - even the thief! - deserves respect.
That’s not vengeance, but it may be the beginning of justice: “Guess what, buddy? You’re worth something. I believe in you.” Self-respect is the foundation of moral behavior. Punishment only reaches so far in changing people, but reviving their belief in their self-worth can change lives forever.
It’s the beginning of every rehabilitation story in the book, and for good reason. It started with one very important and beautiful Book, written a long, long time ago, and relevant to this day.