Vo’eschanan – Little Sins Fuel Bigger Ones

The Kotzker Rebbe likely meant it as a poignant joke when he reportedly remarked that the reason the Ten Commandments had to be both seen and heard (Chazal describe the revelation at Har Sinai as a synesthetic experience – e.g. Yalkut Shimoni 299) was that the word “lo” in lo signov would clearly be seen written with an aleph, not a vav.

That is to say, the commandment is to be understood as “Do not steal,” not “Steal for Him” – which would imply that, for a holy cause, theft is a virtue.

But the Kotzker certainly intended his quip as a serious lesson: Lofty ends don’t justify forbidden means.

If a Jew should “bend the rules” with regard to business or governmental dealings, he is guilty of gezel akum.  Even if his intention is to benefit a charity or Jewish institution.

Hopefully, we all realize that. But when, on occasion, we have read of some such liberty-taking, it behooves us to consider the fact that even those of us who would never consider doing such a thing ourselves might have reason for introspection.

Because a fundamental concept in Judaism is the idea of arvus, that all Jews are intertwined, that we are all responsible for one another. And so, if a Jewish thief exists, it is the “fault,” in a sense, of us all. That’s why we say “Ashamnu…” – “We have sinned” – in first person plural.

That outright Jewish violator of “Do not steal” may have been empowered by our own, less blatant, thievery. Like gneivas daas, stealing another’s mind (misleading him); or gezel sheina, depriving another of sleep; or what Chazal consider to be “stealing from a poor person,” namely, not returning a greeting (Berachos 6b).

Many are the understandings of nachamu nachamu ami – the repetition of the word for “be comforted” in the haftarah of Vo’eschanan. But, considering that the word nechama can mean both comfort and change of heart (as in Beraishis 6:6), perhaps the repetition reflects, too, the fact that our repentance from small transgressions have an effect on preventing larger ones.

And some comfort surely lies in that fact.

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran


My most recent Ami Magazine column, “Just Desserts,” can be read here.

And a piece I wrote for Forward about NY Mayor Eric Adams’ Jewish Advisory Council and attacks on its composition, is here.


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