People often accuse Judaism of being too focused on details. This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, is cited as an example of this focus. It is full of detailed laws regarding torts, damages, theft, contract law, marriage law, property law etc. etc. It is not a very “spiritual” section of the Torah. However, I gained some insight into the Parsha during some recent travels. I witnessed a few cases of theft by ordinary, not really evil, people.
I flew out of Stewart Airport, which was a pleasure, because it is such a nice chilled out miniature airport. I flew on a small airline, called Sky Bus. You can probably tell from the name that it is an economy airline. On this airline you have to pay for all the food, even the small snacks. The muffins were about $3 each, and the water was about $1.50. After they had finished selling the muffins the stewardess was cleaning up somewhere else and I saw a gentleman with his young son come to the front of the plane to take his son to the bathroom. As he passed the galley, there were a few muffins sitting there, he looked around, was that the stewardess was at the back of the plane, and took a couple of muffins, eating one and putting the other one in his pocket. Now you may feel that it is obnoxious to sell a muffin on the plane, or you may feel that they overcharge. However, it is their muffin, not yours. Taking the muffin without paying is theft. Minor theft, very little damage, no violence, but theft nonetheless.
Recently I was at a pizza store where they had a basket of small, fried sweets that you could buy for 50 cents each. There was a customer at the counter who asked the salesperson how much the sweets cost. The salesperson walks away to get some pizza, and the customer takes a sweet and eats it. Admittedly it was only 50 cents, but 50 cents is still theft. Unfortunately, after these two incidents I started noticing “little thefts” very often.
Our Sages tell us that before the Flood (of Noah) the world was full of theft and violence. One of the forms of theft that was very common was people stealing such small amounts that there was no legal recourse for the victim. A person who was selling some item of food, for example, and every person walking by would just take a little bit and walk on. The seller would have most of his wares taken without compensation. It was the financial version of “death by a thousand cuts.”
Maybe we can understand our Parsha with all its details, laws and minutia – it is there to make us aware that we cannot ignore “minor” thefts, every action is significant and that, as a great architect once said, “G-d is in the details.”