Friday, December 10, 2010

When your brother steals (Derashah Vayyigash 5771)

I'm guest-speaking at a shul here in Toronto this Shabbos. Here's what I plan to say:

Like most people, I receive several daily emails from well-meaning friends and relatives who want to make sure I’m up on the latest videos. A Scotsman performing bicycle tricks on a castle keep, a collection of 1980’s pop stars lip-synching to the Beatles, interviews with people involved in the UN vote creating the State of Israel, I’m on it, because a few thousand best friends are thinking of me.

I assure you, I am most grateful.

This past week, one particular clip stood out from the batch – a 15-minute digest from The People’s Court, an American television show which features small claims arbitration hearings. To make a long story short: A couple claimed they had accidentally given the cleaners something which should not be dry cleaned, the cleaners had called them, and they had told the cleaners not to wash it. They washed it anyway, it’s ruined, and the couple is suing for $3,000, the cost of the item according to the original purchase receipt. The judge heard the claim, heard the defense, did a little checking – and found that the plaintiffs had presented a false receipt to the court. The item had been junk in the first place, and was never worth anything like $3,000.

Why did someone send me this clip? Because the perjuring plaintiffs were Heidi and Mendy, from Brooklyn.

Regrettably, Heidi and Mendy are not unique; they join a Hall of Shame that dedicates a new Jewish wing every other week, and the challenge these embarrassing cases raise in my mind is this: What do we do when our brethren steal? Whether it’s the meat processor turning a blind eye to his company’s improprieties, or the slumlord refusing repairs for his non-Orthodox or non-Jewish tenants, or the Los Angeles businessman snared along with his Jewish embezzling ring, how do we react when they turn to us to provide petitions, bail, or political pressure on their behalf? And how do we relate to them afterward? Do we turn away, do we re-define them as non-Orthodox, non-Jewish? Do we disown them?

This isn’t a new issue. Rav Meir of Lublin, also known as Maharam Lublin, addressed the matter in 16th century Poland in the case of a man who was jailed by the government for an affair with a non-Jewish woman. So did Rav Yair Bachrach, the Chavos Yair, in 17th century Germany in the case of a Jewish thief. So did Rav Yechezkel Katzenellenbogen, the Knesses Yechezkel, in 18th century Germany in the case of a Jew who was an adulterer as well as a thief – this is what we call progress. They were asked whether the Jewish community should intervene on behalf of these criminals – and I would venture to guess that their answer will come as a surprise to many people present this morning.

All of them offered the same response: If we feel that the penalty is excessive, then we are responsible to raise funds and apply pressure to gain the criminal’s release from prison. Far from distancing the villain, we claim him as our own.

But where does this come from?! In a nation whose Abrahamic tradition is founded upon the principles of צדקה ומשפט, righteousness and justice, how can there be any responsibility to, or identification with, a Jew who breaks the law for personal profit, knowingly subjecting himself to well-advertised penalties, desecrating Gd’s Name and placing Jews everywhere in danger of guilt by association?

The answer may lie in the actions of Yehudah, as described in the parshiyyos we read last week and this morning.

At the end of last week’s cliffhanger, the sons of Yaakov were en route north to Canaan with food for their starving families, when they were hailed by the Egyptian viceroy’s agents. The pursuers charged them with theft of the viceroy’s goblet. Bewildered, they denied the accusations. Taking pains to demonstrate their abhorrence for the crime, they spelled out the law-abiding character and personal integrity inherent in the Jewish ideal.

But then וימצא הגביע באמתחת בנימין, the goblet was discovered in Binyamin’s sack. Listen to the words of the Midrash Aggadah, putting us on the scene at that dramatic moment:

כיון שנמצא הגביע, אמרו לו אחיו גנב בר גנבתא, רחל אמך גנבה את התרפים ואתה גנבת את הגביע...
When the goblet was found, Binyamin’s brothers said to him: Thief, son of a thief! Your mother Rachel stole Lavan’s terafim, and you stole the goblet!

The brothers are frantic – we are betrayed by our own! And so Yehudah acknowledges before the viceroy, perhaps bowing his head, surely wringing his hands: מה נאמר, What can we say? מה נדבר, What can we speak? מה נצטדק, How can we justify ourselves? Gd has discovered our guilt, we will all be servants to our master.

And then read Yehudah’s plea at the outset of this morning’s reading – not once does he claim innocence, not once does he challenge the Egyptian sentence. For all of the subtext which Rashi and Rashbam detect in the interstices of Yehudah’s speech, not once is there an allegation of injustice. Yehudah avers that the Hebrew finds dishonesty repugnant beyond measure…

…but then Yehudah offers his own life in place of his brother’s, to gain the freedom of this dishonest thief.

This is not because of Yehudah’s promise to Yaakov to protect his brother; as Rav Dovid Kviat of the Mir Yeshiva notes, Yehudah’s responsibility to Binyamin terminates with the theft of the goblet, that’s not the duty for which Yehudah enlisted. Yehudah protects his brother for a different reason: ישראל אף על פי שחטא ישראל הוא – A Jew who sins, whether against Gd or man, is no less a Jew than any other.

Perhaps this is what inspired the Maharam Lublin, the Knesses Yechezkel, and the Chavos Yair, to rule that we ransom the thieves of our communities in order to rescue them from excessive penalties. We abhor their crimes, and our every word and deed must holler to the heavens and announce to the nations that we reject their base behavior! Just as the world knows that an observant Jew will not step foot in McDonalds, the world must also know that an observant Jew will not engage in shadowy business deals. But we nonetheless stand by the thief's side, to save him from destruction.

A necessary caveat: There are boundaries to our responsibility, and the poskim are careful to delineate them; Parshas Vayyigash is not carte blanche for the villains of Jewish society to sin and then demand limitless bail from our wallets. For example: If criminals endanger the Jewish community, then we are no longer bound to them. And if they act להכעיס, not for personal gain but for the sake of angering Gd, declaring themselves to be Other, then we are no longer bound to them. But barring such drastic conditions, we are very much bound to them. They are our brothers, they are our sisters, and we are theirs.

In Canada, thank Gd, the prospect of torture in prison is not a factor. We need not lobby and petition to avoid a death sentence for a common thief, and so the precedents I cited above are less relevant. But the question of whether to stand by our neighbors who have been indicted, to swallow our distaste and recognize them as lantzmen, is still very much present. What do we do?

To go beyond Yehudah and Binyamin and the authorities I cited earlier, and address this question as well: I would argue, as an extension of what we said above, that we are possessed of a responsibility to claim this criminal as our own, to recognize in him that same spark of Avraham and Sarah which makes us unique, and, ultimately, to bring him back to Torah. For prooftexts, look at our vast literature on kiruv. Kiruv is not limited to people who do not yet keep kosher; kiruv extends to people who do not yet keep yosher.

Reasonable people may disagree with me, of course, but I believe that we perform the mitzvah of הוכיח תוכיח את עמיתך, of rebuke, by drawing people close and helping them change their ways. Not to honor them, certainly, but to help them regain an honorable life.

To be frank: Doing this is icky. I don’t want to hang out with an adulterer, a thief, an embezzler. When I lived in Pennsylvania, I visited Jewish inmates at the local state prison. One of them was guilty of insurance fraud, including defrauding an elderly woman in order to feed his gambling habit. Certainly, I found his crimes repugnant, and I could only wonder what the non-Jewish readers of the newspapers thought when they read of his crimes. But I had to ask myself: If we won’t associate with them, then who will fill that gap? And who will help them achieve that honorable life? Think what we can accomplish, helping these people become whole!

We are summoned to rehabilitate rather than reject. What began with Yehudah’s attempt to ransom Binyamin continues with our efforts to redeem our own brethren. We declare to the world our revulsion at their crimes – and then we take them in, and help them to become sensitive and feel the revulsion as well.

One voice in a Mechilta suggests that Yehudah’s defense of Binyamin is what won the monarchy for his descendants. This is logical; a melech/king is responsible for the welfare of every citizen, however distasteful their behavior. The king cannot turn away from his citizens. Because Yehudah understood this, he was worthy to ascend to the throne.

Gd-willing, when we absorb this lesson, when we do not turn away and disown but instead revile the crime while rehabilitating the criminal, then we will be worthy of seeing the descendants of Yehudah ascend the throne again.

1. I know that Vos iz Neias is running the explanation offered belatedly by Heidi and Mendy. I read it, and am very skeptical.

2. The teshuvos I cited are: Maharam Lublin 15, Chavos Yair 139, Knesses Yechezkel 38. See also Pischei Teshuvah Yoreh Deah 151:1. For a dissenting view, see Yam Shel Shlomo Gittin 4:72. And Chavos Yair has an interesting response to concern for guilt by association.

3. The Midrash Aggadah is Bereishis 44, and the Mechilta is Mechilta d'Rashbi 14:22.

4. Rav Dovid Kviat's observation is in his Succas Dovid to Vayyigash. Apparently, he does not accept the view of the end of the Midrash Aggadah I cited, that Binyamin convinced his brothers that he was innocent.

5. Sanhedrin 44a is the source of ישראל אף על פי שחטא ישראל הוא.

6. I wanted to talk more about the parallels in kiruv for sins against Gd and sins against man, but this would have distracted from the rest of the derashah.


  1. Excellent derashah and I appreciate your view on the "sheital-gate."

  2. This is not because of Yehudah’s promise to Yaakov to protect his brother; as Rav Dovid Kviat of the Mir Yeshiva notes, Yehudah’s responsibility to Binyamin terminates with the theft of the goblet, that’s not the duty for which Yehudah enlisted
    Where do you see this condition in the pledge Yehuda makes? I would have assumed Yehuda's offer to yosef was based on the areivut he offered yaakov.

    on the more general point - how do you define "excessive" - is there a condition in the requirement for bnai noach to ser up a justice system that provides penalties (to bnai brit?) no greater than a jewish court?

    having said that , i agree with the main mussar

    Joel Rich

  3. Neil-

    1. Rav Kviat sees it in the word אסון, and I agree with his logic.
    2. "Excessive" seems to be based on our own laws (and note that this is also a theme in international extraditions), but none of those teshuvos spells it out.

  4. OK-different strokes "ח וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוּדָה אֶל-יִשְׂרָאֵל אָבִיו, שִׁלְחָה הַנַּעַר אִתִּי--וְנָקוּמָה וְנֵלֵכָה; וְנִחְיֶה וְלֹא נָמוּת, גַּם-אֲנַחְנוּ גַם-אַתָּה גַּם-טַפֵּנוּ. 8 ט אָנֹכִי, אֶעֶרְבֶנּוּ--מִיָּדִי, תְּבַקְשֶׁנּוּ: אִם-לֹא הֲבִיאֹתִיו אֵלֶיךָ וְהִצַּגְתִּיו לְפָנֶיךָ, וְחָטָאתִי לְךָ כָּל-הַיָּמִים.

    Joel Rich

  5. Very thought provoking and as you mention, unfortunately not an uncommon occurence.

    I have seen other blogs lambaste those who raise money for pidyon shevuyim or defense for Jews convicted for fraud or murder. They called it a chilul hashem that the frum community is defending such people. But in one case, the prison term is very extreme for the crime, and in the other the death penalty was at stake (which was carried out in the end).

    We can say that these are excessive punishments are we are obligated to advocate for these people in these circumstances.

  6. Hi Michael,

    Thanks for commenting.

    Gauging "excessive" is very difficult. I believe the standard is based on what a beit din would have done, but I can't prove that.