The very last pasuk of last week’s parsha says, “You shall not ascend My altar on steps, so that your nakedness will not be uncovered upon it.” Rashi clarifies that steps require one to take wide steps, which would be considered to be treating (the stones of the altar) in a degrading manner. Rashi further clarifies that although the kohanim anyways wear pants, nevertheless, taking wide steps is “close to” exposing nakedness. Rashi then hammers home the lesson to take from this: “If regarding these stones which don’t have the intellect to care about their degradation, yet the Torah tells us that since there is a need for them, don’t treat them in a degrading manner; your fellow man who is (created) in the image of your Creator and cares about his degradation, how much more so (must you treat him with respect).”
Rav Reuven Karelenstein points out that if the degradation by the altar refers to even a case that is simply “close to” exposing nakedness, that would—in turn—convey that when it comes to our fellow man, we are to be careful not to cause him even the slightest degradation (“Yechi Reuven,” Mishpatim).
We see from here, the level of care to be taken when it comes to preserving the honor and esteem of our fellow Jew. One might think a slight remark or gesture that carries a demeaning connotation is nothing to be concerned about, but we may see from here that we are to be cautious of even such a level of degradation. This—ultimately—shows the importance of respecting the inner dignity and esteem of our fellow man.
Our parsha begins with the topic of the thief who can’t adequately compensate for what he stole, and is, therefore, sold as a slave. This Jewish thief—who is now a slave—seemingly gets first class treatment. As the Gemara says, that it should not be that you (the master) eat bread made of fine flour, and he (the servant) eats bread made of inferior flour; that you drink aged wine, and he drinks new wine; that you sleep on top of soft mattresses and he sleeps on top of straw. Essentially—concludes the Gemara—anyone who buys a Jewish servant has virtually bought a master for himself (Kiddushin, 22a). This, perhaps, shows the respect and honor that even a thief receives.
Hashem is so considerate of the internal honor of even a thief, that this innate dignity could even impact how much a thief pays upon theft: The pasuk a little later on in our parsha says, “when a man will steal an ox, or a sheep or goat, and slaughter it or sell it, he shall pay five cattle in place of the ox and four sheep in place of the sheep.” Why by the ox fivefold, whereas by the sheep only fourfold?
Rashi quotes Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai who explains that since an ox walks on its own, the thief wasn’t degraded by having to carry it on his shoulders, so he pays five; however, by a sheep, which he carries on his shoulder, he only pays four since he was demeaned through it, as Hashem has pity on people’s dignity.
It seems evident that even when a thief is involved in the theft itself, Hashem still cares about his honor and dignity. And even though we are discussing a thief, and even though he brought this degradation unto himself, nevertheless, Hashem is still concerned about even such a person’s dignity. Hence, since by stealing the sheep he was degraded, Hashem’s pity on the infringement of his honor is so significant that his payment is reduced.
We could, thus, maybe see a connection between what last week’s parsha ends off with and what our parsha begins with. Last week, we see the level of care to be taken to preserve another’s dignity, and in our parsha we, perhaps, see what kind of person it may even apply to.
One may ask: Of all the topics our parsha presents, why do we start with that of the thief (who is sold as a slave)!?
Our parsha is loaded with topics pertaining to “bein adam lachaveiro”—interpersonal dealings. Perhaps, the lesson of the innate honor and dignity of a person—gleaned from the thief—is to teach us (especially when coupled with what last week’s parsha immediately concluded with), that internalizing this perspective about the importance and dignity of a person, can greatly impact our level of care for others and, ultimately, the way we approach and deal with interpersonal affairs. Moreover, if this perspective applies to the thief, then, how much more so are we to bear this in mind when it comes to the typical upstanding individual.
Binyamin Benji learns in Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan. He holds an MSW and is the author of the weekly Torah Talk in the Sephardic Congregation of Paramus’ newsletter. He can be reached at [email protected].