Minor Thefts – Parshat Mishpatim 5773
I was recently a passenger on a small airline flying out of Stewart Airport, I think it was called, Skybus. On Skybus you have to pay for everything; the muffins were $2 each, coffee was $1.50 etc. After the crew had finished selling the muffins the stewardess was cleaning up somewhere in the back of the plane. I noticed a man walking toward the front of the plane to take his son to the bathroom. There were a few muffins sitting there in the galley, he looks around, sees that no one is watching, takes one muffin which he quickly eats, and puts one muffin in his pocket. Now, you may believe that it is obnoxious and petty to sell tiny muffins and coffee on the plane. You may think that the price is exorbitant, but, in the end, the muffins belong to Skybus. Later, the thief, was schmoozing with the stewardess, and he seemed like a pleasant guy, a good father, and an exceedingly charming thief.
I have noticed similar occurrences at food stores, where they sometimes have treats on display. Customers will often help themselves to a taste of falafel, or to just one churro, without asking the owner.
I imagine that these types of thefts are reasonably commonplace. The Torah tell us that at the time of the Flood the world was full of theft, and our Sages explain that one type of theft that was very common was the theft of small amounts. People would rationalize that since it was a small amount, and not very significant financially, then it is not really theft. That is probably what happens in the situations that I mentioned before – people rationalize that since it’s a small amount, it is OK.
Rabbi Isaiah Karelitz, known as the Chazon Ish, in his book Emunah u-Bitachon speaks about personality development and ethical growth. He says that the way to achieve ethical greatness is through studying and fulfilling the details and minutiae of the law. He claims that if you are aware of the details of the law and you try as much as possible to observe those details you will grow in your ethical development. The details of the law train us in self-control, make us aware of the significance of every single action, and make us aware that there is moral guidance in every situation. Rabbi Karelitz maintains that someone can have wonderful ideal and ethical beliefs, but if he doesn’t take care of the details, if he ignores “minor” actions then he cannot hope to be an ethical person. Parshat Mishpatim is replete with detailed, complex laws governing jurisprudence, torts, damages, property rights, ownership, etc. etc. It doesn’t seem like such holy subject matter, it doesn’t seem to very spiritual or lofty in its nature. Yet, it is part of the Torah, as holy as any other section, and essential to being good people. G-d, as they say, is in the details.