Honesty is a tricky business. Sometimes things that at first seem honest don't appear quite as clean when we give them a second look. This week's portion (5:6-8) tells us about how God wants us to be honest and avoid stealing of any sort. This even includes the "little" things that people can fool themselves into thinking are all right. The Torah teaches that be a good Jew is to be honest through and through.
In our story, a kid struggles with what it really means to be honest.
"THE GRASS IS GREENER"
It was a scandal. It was the talk of the school. Unfortunately, there had been a break-in at the school store, and the cash register was robbed. A few days later, the police arrested one of the janitors. Not only was he fired, but rumor had it that he would soon be going to jail!
Ellen and her friend Rachel were discussing the latest 'news' on the bus ride home from school. "Stealing is just terrible. I would never do anything like that!" declared Ellen, shaking her head.
"It's true," agreed Rachel. "Stealing is bad news, but you know what? A lot of times people steal without even realizing it."
"What do you mean," laughed Ellen, "they sleep-walk into a bank, pull out a gun, take all the money, and roll back into bed?"
"No, silly! What I mean is, that a lot of things people think are okay are really stealing. My mom told me that according to the Torah, even if someone poor takes something from someone very rich, it's called stealing..."
"So Robin Hood is out, huh?"
"That's right. And not only that, it doesn't matter how little a person takes, even if the other guy will never miss it - stealing is stealing."
The bus pulled up to the curb. "Hey, it's my stop," said Ellen, gathering up her stuff. "Gotta run. I hear you, stealing is wrong, and I would never do it. See ya tomorrow."
The girl jumped off the bus, swung her bag over her shoulder and headed for home. On the way she passed the 'free-phone.' That's what she and her friends had dubbed the broken pay phone on the corner of their street. It worked without putting in any money. Eventually the phone company would get around to fixing it, but until then, many people used it.
Some of the kids Ellen knew even used it to make expensive, overseas calls. That wasn't right. But Ellen just had to phone her cousin across town to remind her to bring the latest CD when she came over later. At home, her sister would surely be glued to the phone as usual, so she decided to make the quick call now.
Ellen picked up the handset and began to dial. She had used the 'free-phone' before, but for some reason, this time something didn't feel right. Then she remembered what Rachel had said about stealing. But this couldn't be what she meant. After all, what was a few cents to the multi-billion dollar phone company? She hesitated.
"Hey, hurry up," said a boy waiting to use the phone.
Ellen started dialing again. She was just being paranoid, she figured. After all, the phone company expected things like this to happen. This wasn't called stealing ... or was it?
She stopped again. By now, a couple more kids had lined up behind her, and looked pretty impatient. 'It would just be a quick, one-minute call - for sure it was okay - the phone company rips you off anyway...' she thought to herself.
Then she heard another voice inside her head: 'No - these were all just excuses. Rachel was right, stealing is stealing.' She put the handset back down on the hook, and took a breath of relief.
"Hey, what's wrong? They fixed the phone or something?" asked a girl behind her in line.
Ellen shook her head. "Nope," she smiled. "The phone's still broken, but I'm fixed. Stealing is stealing, and I'm not going to steal."
Q. How did Ellen feel about stealing when she first spoke to her friend, Rachel?
A. She felt like she never did anything that could be considered stealing.
Q. How did she feel when she wanted to make a call on the broken pay phone?
A. At first she felt it was okay, then she realized that using it would really be a type of stealing too, and from then on she would be more careful than ever to be honest.
Q. Is there any ethical difference between robbing a bank and popping a grape in one's mouth at a fruit store?
A. Though the first one may make the headlines, and the second one hardly raises an eyebrow, essentially the two acts are the same. Stealing is wrong no matter how little is taken. In God's eyes there's no such thing as a 'petty' theft. What's ours is ours, what isn't, isn't - period. Once one realizes this, taking the grape will become just as unthinkable in his eyes as making off with the million.
Q. What are some common mistaken justifications people have for taking things they shouldn't?
A. "I'm only borrowing/using it, and will give it back..." "The other guy will never miss it..." "Someone took mine, so I can take someone else's..." "They rip people off anyway..." "I wouldn't mind if I were him..." "Everyone else does it..." "It's only worth a few cents..." etc. All these things might be true, but according to the Torah they are not valid reasons to take or use someone's property without permission, and is therefore stealing.
Ages 10 and Up
Q. What do you consider a worse offense: armed robbery, where one forcibly takes away someone else's possessions against his will, or the type of theft where the item is 'lifted', or taken secretly, without anyone being aware of it at the time? Why?
A. Our first impulse may be to say the brazen, open robbery is worse. However, in an ultimate, spiritual sense, the second crime is actually graver. While the robber has been overcome by his improper desires and acts upon them openly, the second, seemingly more 'civil' perpetrator can control himself to the degree that he's concerned that his act shouldn't be seen by other people. Yet he is not equally bothered by the fact that the entire crime is being witnessed by God. One of our main spiritual tasks in life is to become more and more aware of God, to the point that His presence is as real to us as, and ultimately even more real than, any other presence. The 'secret' thief sadly demonstrates that his relationship with God hasn't even gotten off the ground.
Q. Our Sages teach that it is impossible for a person to acquire even one iota of someone else's rightful possessions. How do you understand this, and how does this relate to the concept of stealing?
A. A person's possessions are not merely haphazard acquisitions; rather, God has arranged that whatever we need for accomplishing our spiritual life-task comes into our hands in a legitimate way. Yet God also gives man free will, and unfortunately some use this free will to try to circumvent God's will, and steal from others. However God ultimately is in control of everything, and will see to it, one way or another, that no one will benefit from illegitimately gotten gains, nor lose out from having something that's legitimately his taken away. With this knowledge, one can relax and neither feel the need to take from others - it won't help anyway - nor feel overly upset if something of his is taken - he'll either get it back, or it wasn't really meant to be his in the first place.