"The Scapegoat" by William Holman Hunt, 1854. The biblical scapegoat is first mentioned in this week's Torah portion.
"The Scapegoat" by William Holman Hunt, 1854. The biblical scapegoat is first mentioned in this week's Torah portion.

Don’t expect Judaism to rationalize your bad behavior

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The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.

Acharei Mot-Kedoshim

Leviticus 16:1-20:27

The parashah of Kedoshim is replete with commandment after commandment. It begins with a general directive to be holy.

What is holiness? It is to be distinct and designated for a higher purpose. The Torah clearly recognizes that it is through the following of commandments that we achieve this holiness.

Some might assume that it is the obscure rites of Judaism that make us unique. In fact, as we see clearly from the parashah, it is a combination of laws that govern our relationship to G-d along with laws that govern our human affairs. In the realm of interpersonal relationships, there are no rituals. There are Divine laws that form the bedrock of civilized society.

“You shall not steal, you shall not deny falsely, and a man shall not lie to his fellow.” (Leviticus 19:11) At first glance, there seems to be some redundancy in this verse. To deny falsely is to claim that a possession that one has been entrusted with by someone else is in fact their own property. The Torah makes a distinction between taking someone else’s item without their permission and trying to keep something that someone else actually handed over of their own volition. But are not both crimes still manifestations of lying to one’s fellow?

The human mind is great at rationalizing bad behavior. There are some people who can justify taking someone else’s property because they feel that they may deserve it more. In some cases, they may feel that the owner deserves it less. The Robin Hood approach is lauded as noble because the rich do not really need as much as they have. But the Torah makes it clear that stealing is wrong. Full stop.

There are some who would be deterred from taking property that was entrusted to them out of a sense of loyalty. Others might feel that the crime is not so bad because they never entered their friend’s domain to acquire the object in question. Further, there are times when someone just wants to hang on to the item a little bit longer and denies that it is in his possession just to buy time. Again, the Torah makes it clear that one may not deny having something that belongs to another person.

The third phrase in our verse is interpreted by the Sages (see Rashi’s commentary on the verse) as a prohibition against swearing falsely. Once again, the Torah recognizes that people might be tempted to push off accusations until they can return the object in question. The last phrase in the verse enforces the idea that one cannot stand in court and lie under oath.

The next verse suggests that there are those that would go ever further in their disregard for the law. “Do not swear falsely by My Name for you will desecrate the name of your G-d, I am HaShem.” (19:12) Rashi suggests that there is a buildup of severity in the sins that are referenced. If one steals or claims property that they were entrusted to watch, it is not far off for them to lie under oath. Perjury is one thing, but actually evoking G-d’s own name is much more serious. It can lead to a desecration of G-d’s name.

The final mention of “I am HaShem” is used throughout the Torah to punctuate and emphasize that G-d is all-knowing. A person might believe that it is possible to get away with fabricating the truth, and he or she might even be brazen enough to attempt to do so in the courts, but G-d is aware.

According to Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, the foremost German Torah commentator of the 19th century, there are subtleties in the way that people approach their relationship to property, and therefore the Torah has to address all these situations. If we really are to be a holy nation, we are required to make sure that our conduct creates a society that really is distinct in its care for the law and justice.

In today’s world, the ability to steal or deny falsely has only increased with intangible goods and intellectual property. No matter how sophisticated we become, the basic fundamentals of right and wrong remain timeless.

Rabbi Joey Felsen
Rabbi Joey Felsen

Rabbi Joey Felsen is the founder and executive director of the Palo Alto-based Jewish Study Network. He teaches at JCCs in Palo Alto and Los Gatos, and is the founding board president of Meira Academy in Palo Alto. Rabbi Felsen is also on the board of J. The Jewish News of Northern California.