By Rabbi Thomas Louchheim
Saturday, May 18, 2013
35th Torah portion, 2nd in Numbers
Naso 4:21-7:89 (176 verses)
Jewish Guilt: More than a Punch Line
The duties in the Mishkan of the Gershonites, Merarites, and Koathites are detailed. God speaks to Moses about ritually unclean people, repentant individuals, and possible cases of adultery. The obligations of a Nazirite vow are explained. God tells Moses how to teach Aaron and his sons the Priestly Blessing. Moses consecrates the Sanctuary, and the tribal chieftains bring offerings.
“Then he shall confess the wrong that he has done. He shall make restitution in the principal amount and add one-fifth to it, giving it to him whom he has wronged” (5:7).
This law concerns an individual who had stolen something by violence and then lied to cover up the crime. Although we are aware of this legislation from Leviticus (5:20-26), two additional provisions are introduced here: (1) a confession must precede the act of restitution and the bringing of an asham, “a guilt-offering;” and (2) an additional payment of twenty percent is made to the victim. According to Rashi (1040-1104), a robber is not liable to neither make the guilt-offering at the sanctuary nor make this additional payment to the victim if he was found guilty solely by the testimony of witnesses. What is peculiar is that only when the robber confesses his crime are these two punitive measures enforced. Apparently crime does not pay and neither does honesty.
Therefore, payment of an additional amount to the victim and the expensive payment for a guilt-offering must not be seen as a punishment. Rather, they are—according to Rabbi Reuven Bulka in his Torah Therapy—”rehabilitative adjustments legislated by the Torah to take full advantage of the conceived new sensitivity exhibited by the previously insensitive thief.” Fascinating is the fact that even for a trifling sum a thief is called a sinner and must become contrite, confess and bring a costly asham (guilt-offering) and make restitution. Why is that? One rabbinic source suggests that in committing the crime it is as if he has taken a life. Whose life? One opinion suggests that of the victim. Another suggests his own life!
Our Torah teaches the importance of shleimut, “wholeness” for perpetrator and victim alike. The victim is made whole by the return of the principal plus twenty percent of its value, and the perpetrator has the opportunity through confession and restitution to return to his community. These acts serve as a harbinger of a new life. We know how ridiculous it is to force someone to make amends and to apologize. This can appear as nothing but a rote exercise. But for the individual who so desires, the Torah provides the means for teshuvah l’shlemut (“a return to wholeness”).
- 1.How does the additional payment of twenty percent from his earnings (not his theft) affect the thief’s rehabilitation?
- 2.How is a guilt offering affective in this case? Now think about the stereotype of “Jewish guilt.” Rather than a punch line, what is the psychological intention of it?
- 3.Is there any relationship between this act and your donations of tzedakah you make at the time of a birthday, anniversary, funeral, or as a tribute to someone?
- 4.What “rehabilitative adjustments” have you made in your life that has led to a greater sensitivity to your environment or others?
Confess to a friend and make a twenty percent return to that person in some way (not necessarily monetary).