Lo Signov – You Shall Not Steal.
On the surface, it sounds quite uncomplicated. (Aren’t even young children taught not to help themselves to something – anything – that is not theirs?) If we are honest with ourselves, however, we’d have to agree the myriad ways this commandment is breached render it less straightforward than the two simple words might at first glance imply.
Take the recalcitrant man who denies his wife a Get. Is he not guilty of stealing years from the woman whom he heartlessly keeps imprisoned for his own warped agenda?
How about the man (or woman) who makes a play for someone else’s spouse, in essence attempting to steal the affection to which he is not entitled and which rightfully belongs to another?
Defaming someone with evil speech, lashon hara, can rob that person of a livelihood, a shidduch, a reputation and, subsequently, much more.
And what of the rationalization that “It is only the government and they already have enough money”? Is the massive chillul Hashem this type of pilfering engenders not enough incentive to keep our hands out of the till?
Two exceptional luminaries who relinquished their holy souls to their Maker on Shavuos have for centuries served as the embodiment of integrity for our people. Legendary figures in their exalted Avodas Hashem, they have bequeathed to us a lasting legacy of absolute faith and belief in the Master of the Universe.
One is our beloved King David, the eloquent Psalmist; the other is the founder of chassidus, the holy Baal Shem Tov.
Commemoration of their Yahrzeit on Shavuos, the anniversary of the grandest occasion of all time – our spectacular union with God at Har Sinai – is certainly no coincidence but rather divine orchestration meant to imbue us with inspiration and prompt us to fortify our everlasting bond with our One and Only.
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Lead me on the path of Your Commandments for that is my desire; incline my heart toward your testimonies and not to monetary gain (Tehillim 119:35,36).
The repercussions of defying the Eighth Commandment may not be immediately discerned. In fact, it can take years, even generations, for retribution to come full circle.
In the days of the Baal Shem Tov, a wealthy businessman about to set out on a lengthy journey decided to leave his substantial fortune with a close friend for safekeeping. This friend was of very modest means but most trustworthy, and so written documentation of the temporary transaction was dispensed with.
As it happened, the poor man suddenly took ill and passed away. Following the mourning period, his many children browsed their father’s belongings and were shocked to discover the riches. They split this unexpected bounty among themselves and immediately took to enhancing their lifestyle in accordance with their unanticipated windfall.
Upon his return, the rich man confronted the children of his friend and laid claim to his money.
“Where is proof of your claim?” they asked him. Since there was none to speak of, the matter came before the beis din which ruled in favor of the deceased man’s children.
This occurrence left at least one of the Baal Shem Tov’s talmidim deeply troubled and he voiced his dismay to the tzaddik. Being that the deceased’s indigent state was widely known, the beis din’s ruling seemed illogical.
The Baal Shem Tov, in reply, asked his student to set out early the next morning to a specific location, where he would find a large tree next to a well. The student was told to hide himself high up in the branches of the tree from where he was to quietly keep watch of the day’s goings-on and report back to his rebbe.
The talmid did as the Baal Shem Tov bid, and by noontime he observed a rider dismounting his horse to avail himself of some water from the well. Having quenched his thirst, the merchant lay down in the shade of the large tree to catch some sleep, using his vest and money belt as a cushion for his head.
Awakening a short while later, the man hurriedly rode off, leaving his bundle of money behind. It wasn’t long before another merchant came by with the same itinerary in mind, but just as he was about to set himself down under the tree he caught sight of the first man’s property and wasted no time placing the money belt around his waist and beating a hasty retreat.
A drifter with his belongings swung over his shoulder soon wandered by and stopped to drink from the well. The shade of the tree beckoned the weary man, who lay down to rest.
Just then, the first rider showed up in a frantic bid to recoup his possessions. Seeing the vagrant lying there, he shook him awake and brusquely demanded his money back. The poor man, oblivious to the recent chain of events, pleaded his innocence to no avail. The outraged merchant mercilessly pummeled him, even spilling the contents of his sack of meager belongings.
When the coast had finally cleared, the young chassid realized it was time to return to give an accounting of the day’s events.
The Baal Shem Tov clarified them for his talmid: The first man was a merchant who had had a din Torah in a previous life with one who had sought to collect an outstanding debt owed to him by the merchant’s father. The merchant swore that his father had never made mention of any such transaction and based on his testimony was freed of the obligation of having to repay the petitioner.
The second man (who had shown up in time to find the forgotten money belt) had been that petitioner in an earlier life, the one who had lost the money through the beis din’s ruling. So the money had now reverted to its rightful owner.
The talmid began to have a clearer picture of the circumstances surrounding the first two merchants but was still perplexed about what he perceived as a senseless and brutal assault of the poor man.
The Baal Shem Tov explained that this third person at the scene had been the dayan (judge) on the beis din who had been remiss in his obligation to seek justice for the aggrieved party.
Thus, added the Baal Shem Tov, though present-day occurrences may at times escape our understanding, every soul is made accountable for his or her transgressions.
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The life of the Baal Shem Tov was extraordinary from day one. Yisrael ben Eliezer was born on the 18th day of Elul (yud-ches transposed reads chai – life) in the Hebrew year 5458 (taf nun ches – which transposed reads nachas). He marked his time on earth with extreme humility and, displaying compassion for wrongdoer and righteous alike, was a constant source of sublime nachas to his Creator.
A heartbroken father once approached the holy Baal Shem and cried to him about his son who was distancing himself in a detrimental way. The man was advised to intensify his love for his son, which in turn would induce the young one to feel a greater love for his father. This, assured the Baal Shem, would bring his son around. And it did.
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Remove from me the way of falsehood and favor me with your Torah (Tehillim 119:29).
Devout followers of the Baal Shem Tov, accompanying their rebbe at an outdoor procession to the chuppah of one of his grandchildren, were more than a bit intrigued when he sidestepped the crowd to approach a wagon driver happening by. After a brief verbal exchange, the Baal Shem Tov rejoined his chassidim, but the odd encounter aroused much curiosity. There must have been a good basis for the tzaddik to have interrupted his march to the chuppah of his grandson, they reasoned, and so they assumed the wagon driver was one of the world’s hidden tzaddikim.
Two young chassidim were called upon to follow the wagon driver and learn his identity, as well as the gist of his discussion with the Baal Shem Tov. When they caught up to him, they greeted the wagon driver by the title of Rebbe.
“Why do you address me as such? I am but a poshuter Yid, a simple man,” protested the stranger.
“You don’t fool us,” countered the two young men. “We saw you interact with the holy Baal Shem and we are honored to make the acquaintance of one whom the Besht would go out of his way to acknowledge.”
Seeing the two would not be dissuaded from their conviction, the man decided to take them into his confidence.
“As I said, I am a simple man residing in a small community. My closest neighbor is my closest friend whom I have known since our childhood days. We share in each other’s joys and sorrows and have never withheld secrets from one another.
“My friend earns a living by shopping wholesale pantry goods and reselling them to vendors. Upon his return from one such excursion, his friends – I among them – went to personally welcome him back.
“While in his home, I yearned for a smoke and was at ease enough to search for some tobacco. One cabinet drawer held a sizable packet of money that my friend had brought back with him from his latest venture. Amazed that he would simply leave it lying around in such an accessible place, I devised a plan on the spot by which I hoped to teach him to be more wary and responsible.
“I took the packet and placed it in my pocket, fully intending to return it once he’d learned his lesson. When my friend later discovered the money gone, the shock nearly gave him a heart attack. He and his wife searched the entire house in vain, the loss causing them tremendous aggravation. The neighbors hearing the commotion rushed in to see if they could be of help, but all they could do was commiserate.
“As you can well imagine, it was hardly the ideal time for me to speak up and I determined that I would return later on when things would have calmed down some. Much to my dismay, things didn’t settle down at all; the family was disconsolate at having suffered such calamity and the neighbors kept streaming in with their show of support.
“The more time that passed, the worse I felt about confessing my part in this fiasco. Had I acted immediately, I’d have been berated for causing my friends needless anxiety. But all these hours later, it would certainly give the appearance that I had stolen the money and was returning it due to all the tumult. I could not fathom facing such condemnation and found myself in a terrible bind.
“My friend’s situation further deteriorated when his creditors began to hound him for payment and to suspect him of a setup to deny them their dues. My wife and children attributed my sour disposition to my feelings of empathy with my close friend’s misfortune.
“My yetzer hara began to egg me on. Since I could not return the money, why not make good use of it, and maybe in the future I would find a way to settle the score. When I countered that suspicions would be aroused if I suddenly became affluent, the yetzer hara had a solution for that, too. Leave this place and start anew somewhere else where you are unknown. Once you’ve established yourself, you can have your family join you.
“And so I rented a horse and wagon and informed my family and close acquaintances that I was off to try my mazal elsewhere. You witnessed my coming upon the procession that was on the way to the Baal Shem Tov’s grandchild’s chuppah and – though we have never before met – the Besht approached me to urge me to go back home and return the packet of money to my friend.
“He assured me he would personally testify at a beis din hearing as to my innocence and to the fact that I had truly no ill intent to cheat my friend out of his money.
“Now I feel as though the weight of a stone has been lifted from my heart. I will follow the Baal Shem Tov’s instructions and am on my way home.”
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On a certain erev Shabbos, the Baal Shem Tov found himself so destitute he was unable to purchase even the barest essentials for Shabbos. Early Friday morning he tapped lightly on a window of a house and vocalized his neediness. He then made an about face and walked away.
The man of the house, roused from his sleep, sprang up and – not knowing the identity of the man he was pursuing – ran after the Baal Shem Tov.
“Why did you knock at my window?” he asked. “And if you are short of necessities for Shabbos, why do you leave without giving me a chance to respond?”
“In reality,” replied the Baal Shem Tov, “we are all born with each of our needs provided for by Heaven, but the sin of man brought upon us the edict of ‘by the sweat of your brow shall you earn your bread.’
“The means vary, however, by which we each derive our share. For some, a livelihood arrives effortlessly at their doorstep; others must go the extra mile. As for myself, my struggle is not a great one but I nonetheless must invest a determined measure of effort. From the instant my responsibility is carried out, Hashem sees to my needs. So essentially it makes no difference whether it will be through you or through someone else; my part is done.”
The Torah of Your mouth is better for me than thousands in gold and silver (Tehillim 119:72).
Rachel Weiss is a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press.