The very first instruction imparted to Moses to relay to the people of Israel in the Torah section of Vayikra beginning the third book of the Torah by the same name is: “Adam [a person] who shall offer from amongst you a sacrifice to G-d, from animals – from cattle or from sheep – shall you offer your sacrifice” (Vayikra 1:2). On this verse, the famous medieval exegete known as Rashi comments: “Why is it [adam] mentioned? Just as the first Adam did not offer that which was stolen for everything was his, so you shall not bring from that which is stolen”. On a later verse (1:16), Rashi comments that: “By a burnt offering of an animal, which eats only from the feeding trough of its owner, it is said, ‘He shall wash its innards and its feet with water…and cause it to go up in smoke’ [Vayikra 1:13], but with regards to fowl, which [generally] takes its sustenance from which is stolen, it is said, ‘He shall throw away’ its innards, for it ate from that which is stolen.”
What is evident from the aforementioned comments is that stolen matter cannot serve as a part of a sacrifice that brings the one who offers it closer to G-d. In fact, stealing is so loathsome to the Al-Mighty that our Sages tell us: “How great is the power of theft, for although the generation of the flood transgressed all the laws, their punishment was only decreed upon them because they stretched out their hands to stealing” (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 108a). Various times throughout the Torah, G-d makes a point of prohibiting theft and distancing us from this act. In Sh’mot 20:14, G-d warns us: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house…nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s”. In Sh’mot 21:37 – 22:3, G-d lays down strict punishments for the execution of various forms of theft and the liability of a thief who breaks in to someone’s property. Also, in Vayikra 5:21-25, the Torah mentions punishments for various thefts and means of restitution for these acts. In Vayikra 19: 11, G-d unequivocally declares: “You shall not steal”. Later, in Vayikra 19:13, G-d also warns: “You shall not oppress your neighbor nor rob him”.
In his work Chorev chap. 46, the great spiritual leader of German Jewry during the 1800’s, R. Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808 – 1888) amplifies upon the matter of theft: “Just as G-d gave a body to the human spirit as a tool for his human activities, and the body must be respected for the spirit within it; so He gave him the earth with all that is on it and that belongs to it so that he may freely acquire it and dispose of it according to his destiny. As soon, therefore, as a human being states that he has acquired something which belongs to the earth and comes within the realm of his body, it becomes his own as much as the body which G-d has allotted to him….Just as he freely acquired it, so he can dispose of it freely. Only if he gives up his right to it – either in general terms, so that it reverts to the earth (hefker), or in favor of a stated person by gift, sale, loan etc. – can it be acquired again, in the first case by anyone, and in the second by the stated human being. And if G-d recalls a human being from the earth, it is His law that those who acquired life through him should also through him acquire the means of living and working…Whatever, therefore, a human being calls his own by virtue of the Divine authority … that he assimilates from nature, or whatever another human being has yielded his right to in his favor by means of sale or gift, or what comes to him as an heir, and whatever these produce, must be respected by all men as his, i.e. as due to him…Therefore, just as it is G-d’s command that you shall not kill or injure, that you shall respect the body for the Divine spirit within it, so also is it G-d’s command that you shall not steal or rob. You must respect all human property, even though it may be under your control, because of the human spirit which owns it and because of the Divine order by virtue of which it is his…If you steal or rob, you sin not against matter but against the invisible human spirit which hovers over it, and against G-d, Who demands of you respect for the human spirit and its property. Human concourse shall be ruled not by the visible or by force, but by the invisible, by ideas and right, the action of the human spirit authorized by G-d. If you steal or rob, you at once defile the spiritual destiny of man and G-d, Who has destined him for it. You reduce man to the level of the beast which knows only force.”
This transgression of theft is of such weight and gravity that it is forbidden against all – Jew or non-Jew, adult or minor (Shulchan Arukh, Choshen Mishpat 348-349). Taxes levied by legitimate authorities ordered by fixed laws, even if they are assessed higher on the Jew than on the non-Jew, must be paid; and smuggling and the like against legitimate tax authorities are considered no better than theft (Shulchan Arukh, Choshen Mishpat 369:6). Not returning someone else’s object when requested, although able to do so, also constitutes theft (Shulchan Arukh, Choshen Mishpat 359). If clothing or the like has been confused in the laundry or elsewhere, one cannot just use the item in his possession but must return it to its owner even if his own has not yet been returned (Shulchan Arukh, Choshen Mishpat 136). Even if someone is in danger of his or her life and needs his neighbor’s property to save himself, he can only use it with the intention of returning it (Shulchan Arukh, Choshen Mishpat 359). One cannot buy stolen goods nor goods suspected of being stolen nor may one use an object known to have been stolen (Shulchan Arukh, Choshen Mishpat 359). These are just some of the many laws surrounding the issue of theft and the distancing from it.
Indeed, G-d, as is evident from the aforementioned comments by Rashi and the earlier Sages, from His laws written in the Torah as well as from laws transmitted by our Sages, treats the issue of theft quite seriously. G-d provided mankind with the “image of G-d,” as well as bodies and earthly matter. Mankind must respect the “image” in which he was created. Just like one morally has no right to tamper with another’s body, so one morally has no right to tamper with earthly matter fairly acquired by another. We must keep our hands off of others’ belongings. Grabbing or conniving away someone else’s property by force or trickery detracts from the “image” in which he was created and thereby demotes him to something closer to the level of beast, sullying that “image” that G-d specially bequeathed to him.
Let us all maintain that special “image of G-d” bestowed upon all of us as part of mankind. Let us desist from any form of behavior that would harm that “image”. And let us, by strict adherence to G-d’s word raise that “image” to greater heights so that it may shine for all to see and to enjoy – on this world and eventually in the world to come.