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If a person sins by lying… regarding a theft… defrauding…then shall return the stolen article… giving it to the owner on the day he admits his guilt. He shall bring his guilt offering to G-d… atonement will be effected for him before G-d, and he shall be forgiven (5:21-26)
Generally the korban chatat - sin offering, and asham - more 'specialized' guilt offering were to be brought to atone for a sin committed by accident (c.f. 4:27; 5:3). For example, on eating non-kosher meat in the belief it was kosher. The sin offering would not be relevant if the person knowingly ate meat that was non-kosher. In such a case, the only course of action would be sincere and effective personal repentance on the part of the offender (c.f. Ez. 18: 21-22).
The case of theft is exceptional. For the offering - asham gezeilot (guilt offering for theft) is brought even if a person steals on purpose (Talmud: Shavuot 36b), as the text does not specify otherwise. That means that theft and associated offences are treated more leniently by Torah law, in that atonement may be effected for an act committed on purpose and not just by accident.
Theft does have the Halachic characteristic of being reversible - the Torah requires the person to return the stolen article as it is (5:23), or where that is not possible or practicable, in kind (derived by the Talmud: Baba Kama 66a, 93b). But that does not mean that the theft has been fully reversed. For the owner has unlawfully been deprived of the use of the stolen property during the time it was under the thief's control.
Why then does the Torah appear to treat willful theft (which is that high up as to be in the Ten Commandments) with this degree of clemency?
As a suggestion, look at one underlying theme that goes through the Torah all the way. That is that the Torah was placed by Moses 'before the Israelites' (Deut. 4:44). The Israelites share one characteristic with other people; namely that they are humans, not angels. It is human nature that the Torah fundamentally addresses. It is the person who aspires to be Torah-observant that the Torah speaks to more specifically. And the Creator, who created Man, has intimate knowledge of the details of Man's weaknesses.
Theft and deception have two characteristics, in the context of a person who aspires to be a Torah-keeping individual. On one hand they corrupt the person - making him insensitive to the needs of others, and to deeper positive spiritual forces, which in turn enable him to keep and appreciate other Mitzvot. On the other hand they have a tendency to be an established mentality - 'business is business'. They are something that society at large may passively condone - and the Biblical record in numerous places suggests that was also the case long ago. In modern terms, he will be refused Maftir Yonah or Petichat Neilah if was rumored to have eaten at a restaurant under the sanctimonious fetid sneer of 'we don't use that hechsher'. The same public might well 'overlook' another person's having 'done time' on a theft or deception conviction - in one or two places it might actually be a recommendation in his favor. 'Business is business' if you are frum with it… after all, abstaining from theft is not what distinguishes the Jews from other people. Nor will it get them a place of honor in the 'chumra (stringency) of the week' log book.
So if the aspirer to Torah-observance, for example, ate bacon in moment of extreme curiosity and weakness, his guilt will be enormous. He will not tell himself 'bacon is bacon'. On the contrary. He will want to repent to such a degree that an offering will no longer be necessary. In contrast, the thief, whose own offence is spiritually insidious, will need more 'encouragement' to repent - and it is this 'olive branch' that the Torah extends to him…
For those after more comprehensive material, questions and answers on the Parasha may be found at www.shemayisrael.co.il/parsha/solomon/questions/ and on the material on the Haftara at www.shemayisrael.co.il/parsha/solomon/haftara/ .
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
Parashiot from the First, Second, and Third Series may be viewed on the Shema Yisrael web-site: http://www.shemayisrael.co.il/parsha/solomon/archives/archives.htm
Also by Jacob Solomon: