Give It While It's Hot
Volume 4 Issue 26
by Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky
This week the Torah tells us of a mitzvah that the Chofetz Chaim is alleged
to have prayed never to have to perform. Difficult as it may be, it is a
But as the Chofetz Chaim wished, may we all be spared from it. The Torah
tells us that if an individual succumbed and stole property, or deceitfully
held an item entrusted to him, there is a mitzvah to make amends. "And he
shall return the stolen object that he stole, the fraudulent gains that he
defrauded, the pledge that was secured with him" (Leviticus 5:23). The
redundancy is glaring. Of course the stolen item is what you stole. Surely
the pledge was secured with you. And the fraudulent gains are those that
you swindled. Why does the Torah repeat the action words, "that he stole,
that he defrauded, that was secured with him" ?
On a Talmudic level, the Gemarah derives from the extra words the technical
laws that determine when monetary restitution takes precedence over
reparations of real property. If a person steals a piece of wood, for
example, and builds a boat with it, must he return the newly formed item to
the original owner of the wood, or would monetary compensation suffice?
After all, the wood in the thief's possession is no longer the "the stolen
object that he stole." The man stole wood. It is now a boat. On those
issues and ideas there are tomes of analysis that translate into centuries
of Torah observance. I'd like to explain the illusory redundancies on a
simple, homiletic level.
Rabbi Moshe Sofer, beloved Rabbi of Pressburg and author of the noted work
Chasam Sofer, was about to preside as a judge in a difficult lawsuit. A
few days before trial was to begin he received a package from one of the
litigants. It was a beautiful sterling kiddush cup. That Friday night the
Chasam Sofer took the cup out of its velvet pouch, and raised it for his
entire family to see.
"Look how beautiful this becher is. Do you notice the intricate etchings?
It must be worth a fortune!"
The family looked on in horror. They knew that the gift was sent as a form
of a bribe. They could not imagine why the Chasam Sofer had removed it and
was seemingly admiring it. Abruptly, the Chasam Sofer stopped talking.
His eyes became sternly focused on the cup. He began, once again, to
speak. "But, my children, the Torah tells us we may not take a bribe!
Therefore I will put this beautiful cup away and never use it. It must be
returned to the sender immediately! He must be chastised for this terrible
Then he continued. "You must be wondering why I even looked at the cup.
You certainly must be bewildered why I even admired it openly. I will
explain. How often is it that I am offered a bribe? Never! I never felt
the passion or desire to accept a bribe, as it was never offered! When I
had the opportunity to observe the Torah's prohibition against corruption,
I wanted to make sure that I did it from a vantage of passion. I wanted to
realize what I was turning down. I wanted to value the Torah's command
over an exquisite and ornate silver goblet. I felt that by working up our
appetite for the item we surely would appreciate its refusal."
Perhaps the Torah is hinting at the most proper aspect of restitution.
There are two reasons to return a stolen item. First, you are in possession
of an item that is not yours. Simple. But there is another reason. Every
one of our actions helps mold us. By returning an item that we once
desired enough to have stolen, we train ourselves to break the covetous
constitution of our nature. We learn that even though we want something,
we may not take it.
That redemption is much more effective when the attachment for the item is
still active. A stolen item that one may have forgotten about or lost
desire for may be much easier to return. After all, ten years after you
stole a bicycle you probably would be driving a car. The desire for the
bike is no longer there. Maimonides teaches us that the greatest act of
teshuva (repentance) is when the passion for the crime still exists.
Repentance is always accepted, but if the item is still categorized in your
mind with the expression "the stolen item that you stole, the fraudulent
gains that you defrauded, the pledge that was secured with you," then the
repentance is more meaningful. When desires conflict with conscience - and
conscience prevails -- that is true teshuvah. 50 years after a crime,
there are those who may issue statements of apologies and excuses. However
a lingering question remains. Are the "stolen items ones that they stole"
or are they just relegated to black and white memories of an almost
forgotten crime? The words "I am sorry" should not be sorry excuses, but
rather true regret with a commitment never to sin again. That can best
happen while the iron (or steal) is still hot.
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