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Hirsch At Your Table

Crimes against Society

A brief Dvar Torah on the Parsha, based on R. Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Torah Commentary


Rabbi Matityahu Clark

לא תגנבו ולא תכחשו ולא תשקרו איש בעמיתו. ולא תשבעו בשמי לשקר וחללת את שם אלוקיך אני ד’: (Lv 19:11-12)

The Torah prescribes additional rules that foster social order and social justice. Hence, the verse prohibits behavior that undermines the social fabric of the community, such as stealing, denying the truth, lying and swearing in God’s name. All of these acts desecrate God’s name.

Each of these prohibitions is a social sin, and the Torah expresses them in the plural. However, the acts in question are committed by individuals, not groups. Similarly, the punishments for these acts are applied to individuals; no one would punish a community, let alone an entire nation, for lying, taking a false oath or stealing. How can we explain this use of the plural form? It seems that the plural language describes the collective attitude toward these sinful practices as normal and socially acceptable. The acts of deceit may be committed by individuals, but they have been embraced as a social norm, accepted by the community as a normal part of life.

The word לא is from the root ל-א-ה "to give up and negate reality" and progress.

These sins relate not only to the social arena but to the business world as well.

Stealing, גנבה, means covertly and illegally taking something of value from someone else. But it also includes unethical social interactions, such as גנבת דעת, giving the wrong impression (lit., stealing someone’s opinion). Every action that misleadingly affects someone else’s opinion is a type of גנבה.

The word גנבה is from the root ג-נ-ב "to steal and cunningly break the law." The word usually refers to non-violent theft. The word דעת is from the root י-ד-ע "to know." The context in this verse refers to cheating.

Denying the truth, הכחשה, is another sin that arises in both social and business situations. For reasons of convenience, shame or simple self-interest, a person may deny his involvement in improper deeds or circumstances.

The word הכחשה is from the root כ-ח-ש "to deny justified claims."

Lying (שקר) covers a wide range of falsehoods, all of which undermine the mutual trust that lies at the foundation of human relationships. Lying to an associate, עמיתו, sows mistrust and suspicion, leading to estrangement, alienation and, eventually, crime. Truth אמת)) refers not only to some vague, abstract ideal, but to the practical faith and fidelity in human relationships. Lying, then, is a type of betrayal that must be banished from the Jewish community. Lying under oath (שבועה לשקר) compounds the crime. Such an act appropriates God’s authority to pass off a blatant lie as "truth."

The word שקר is from the root ש-ק-ר "to lie deliberately." The word עמיתו is from the root ע-מ-ת "to stand opposite" in support. The word אמת is from the root א-מ-ן "to rely upon." It refers to faithfulness involved in educating for truth. The word שבועה is from the root ש-ב-ע which means "to submit to God."

The final phrase of the verse, וחללת את שם אלוקיך אני ד', refers generally to the full range of social and business misdeeds. The Jewish nation was chosen to be God’s representative on earth, to bring the nations of the world closer to recognition and acceptance of God. The Jews were chosen because they are a nation dedicated to justice, truth and faithfulness. But when unethical social and business behavior become permitted in people’s eyes, it desecrates God’s Name and undermines the aim of bringing other nations to recognize God.

The word חללת is from the root ח-ל-ל "to profane." It is interesting that this root is used for words connoting "killing" such as חלל חרב. The word שם is from the root ש-ו-ם, "to place." A name places an object in a person’s mind.

God commanded Israel to live among the nations of the world to bear His name and to provide an example of a God-centered society. As Jews we are expected to build a community based on the principles of Divine

Copyright © 2014, Matityahu Clark. All Rights Reserved. This is an excerpt from the forthcoming Hirsch At Your Table, a collection of brief divrei torah based on R. Samson Raphael Hirsch’s Torah Commentary.
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