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Exodus 21:2 – Why Start with a Law about Theft?

Sunday 21 Shevat 5783 (12.02.23)

כִּ֤י תִקְנֶה֙ עֶ֣בֶד עִבְרִ֔י שֵׁ֥שׁ שָׁנִ֖ים יַעֲבֹ֑ד וּבַ֨שְּׁבִעִ֔ת יֵצֵ֥א לַֽחׇפְשִׁ֖י חִנָּֽם׃

Although you are all now wealthy because of the booty you took in Egypt and at the Sea of Reeds, there may nonetheless come a time when things will be different. Thus, if, in the future, one of you becomes so poor that he steals something, and he cannot pay back its value, the court may sell him for a period of service in order to pay back his debt. If you buy such a Hebrew bondman from the court, he shall serve you for six years, and in the seventh year he shall go free without further obligation to make any payment. He will also go free in the Jubilee year, even if this occurs prior to the end of the six years from when he was purchased.

Why Start with a Law about Theft?

There are so many laws – mishpatim – about half, all with a logical basis, why was it necessary to start with this law. Not the most positive law, now to be the first to point out that there would be thieves among the people, wouldn’t another law have been ” better”?

The First Reason

The prohibition of theft is unique in that it affects almost every aspect of a person’s life, since humans are social beings who must deal with each other continuously, in buying, selling, exchanging, etc. People are always dealing with others, either in person or remotely.

The punishment for theft is harsh, this we can learn from the Generation of Flood.

The decree of their annihilation was only sealed because they committed rampant theft, even though they were very sinful with respect to all of their divine commandments, as it says in Genesis 6:13:

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֜ים לְנֹ֗חַ קֵ֤ץ כׇּל־בָּשָׂר֙ בָּ֣א לְפָנַ֔י כִּֽי־מָלְאָ֥ה הָאָ֛רֶץ חָמָ֖ס מִפְּנֵיהֶ֑ם וְהִנְנִ֥י מַשְׁחִיתָ֖ם אֶת־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

G-d said to Noah, “I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them: I am about to destroy them with the earth.

The Second – Perhaps even more Important – Reason

Theft often has – (not when it comes to life preservation) to do with material desires. The person wants something that is not his, that does not belong to him. Whereas, on the contrary, a person must learn to be satisfied with what he may receive from Hashem. Man should focus on what is important to the soul, rather than what the body desires. When people make that wrong choice, a fundamental wrong choice, preferring the material to the spiritual, it is good that the text here shows that we should still deal with these people graciously. Every human being is a creation of HaShem, and every human being deserves a second chance, and should at some point be let “free” again, and be able to throw off the stigma of “thief”

By Angelique Sijbolts

Sources: Kehot Chumash Mispatim, The Divine Code by Rabbi Moshe Weiner en Dr. Michael Schulman

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