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Theft and Gifts

I share an office with two other teachers. The young woman in my office the other day was trying to stay calm, but urgently looking for her prof. to see if he’d picked up the phone she had left behind. It’s got a ton of important stuff on it, she explained. So I lent her my desk phone and then my cell phone, and she called her own number. At first it went to message, and then it didn’t.  She sighed, and explained: they turned it off. Why would they do that? It’s not just that her life would be turned a bit upside down, it’s the disillusionment, lack of empathy showed by them.

Don’t steal. It’s the eighth of the Ten Utterances that are the revealed in this week’s Torah portion.  Yes, stealing is mean,  but what about that piece of bubble gum when I stole was 6?  And what about Jean Valjean who stole bread to feed a starving nephew? What about Robin Hood?  Why does the Creator care if we steal anyway, isn’t it our own business? And what happens if we break the rules?

Our tradition teaches There is no person who doesn’t have his moment Pirke Avot 4:3  A story about a thief and his moment:

Now, in Jewish tradition, Satan (Sah-tan accent on second syllable) is not a devil, but an angel who is God’s adversary, arguing against humanity like a prosecuting attorney.  A story, adapted from Capture the Moon by R. Ed Feinstein. In a Jewish Village of Eastern Europe there lived a notorious thief named Yonni. Though the villagers were very poor, Yonni managed to steal from them. Sometimes a purse of coins left on the store counter, sometimes a pair of boots left to dry on the porch. On a rare occasion even something valuable, a pair of candlesticks or a horse went missing. And every Friday he stole challah and a bottle of wine so his family could enjoy a Shabbat meal.  Yonni was reviled. But somehow, in their loving tradition, Yonni was grudgingly accepted in the Jewish community. Thievery was simply his way of making a living, perhaps not much more sinful than other occupations. For example the town butcher was known to have scales that were not that accurate. The thief was skilled, but worked according to a strict ethic: he never stole from the very poor, and never stole items essential to the owner’s livelihood. He never took anyone’s last coin, and only took enough to support his family.  When the Yonni’s days were done, his soul rose to heaven to stand in Judgement. Heaven was reluctant to take him, not because his crimes were so awful, but because the residents were worried about having their pockets pinched. So he was sent to Hell, where the thief was welcomed as a celebrity.

No mere clerk, but the Adversary himself, Master of hell would handle his case. And so the thief was shown to the Adversary’s office, where he had to wait. Running hell is a big task, and there was pressing business. When the Satan was finished, he turned and warmly greeted his new guest. We have followed your exploits on earth and are honored to have you among us! he said. During their conversation, the Adversary revealed to the thief his pride and joy: a giant book, which sat upon his desk. For generations I have been carefully building a case against the children of Israel. I have carefully recorded every sin committed by every Jew. Every broken promise, betrayal, curses uttered, every Shabbat desecrated, charity coin pocketed has been meticulously inscribed in my book. I have an airtight case! he bragged. With the Jews gone, Hell would have much less opposition on earth, it will be so much easier to fill the earth with evil! My dream is about to be realized, he revealed with glee. The evidence is ready for presentation!  But, just as the Adversary was finishing his speech, a messenger interrupted with pressing business.  The Master was distracted for just a moment as he turned to the messenger. Yonni looked at the huge volume on the master”s desk. It would soon be presented, and misery would rain down on the people of the earth. The thief realized it was for this moment he was created. With sudden insight he realized what he must do. With fingers trained by a lifetime of pickpocketing, he lifted the book silently and in one smooth motion carried it to the window overlooking the raging fires of Hell. In a split second he opened the window and cast the book down. The book was consumed instantly!

With the sudden gust of heat, the master turned to see what was happening: No! he screamed, but it was too late. You have robbed me of my victory! he cried in anguish. The master reached his hands around the thief”s neck to snuff his life out. You fool, do you know whom you have robbed tonight? he screamed to the fading soul of the thief.

Suddenly the office filled with light. Two messengers from Heaven appeared. Cease! they commanded. We have a warrant for the thief, his soul is ours. Give him up!  For a moment the Master hesitated, then sighed Very well, I will just have to begin my book again.  Soon enough I will find sins to fill another book. The messengers carried the surprised thief to Heaven where he was granted eternal rest there as reward for saving Israel and the world from the clutches of the Adversary.  But every once in awhile, just to stay in practice, the thief sneaks out of Heaven, stealing a soul or two from the master and bringing them back to Heaven with him.

Do not steal is revealed at Sinai. The scene: it’s the third day of preparation at the foot of that mountain, and we are all gathered ’round. The mountain is smoking and trembling, there is thunder and the blast of the shofar. Boundaries have been set up (don’t get too close!), expectations are soaring, fear is thick. The Creator is about to reveal an essence here, God will take a chance on making a connection to us all. It starts with an introduction, a “you know Me already, we met at freedom’s shore, that was Me!” Then the revelations, in a world that worships power, God cares most how we treat one another: that we must set boundaries of honor around one another as God set boundaries ’round that mountain! That’s fascinating: the only way for us or God to make serious connections is to set boundaries of awe.  Only treating each other with honor and love creates a holy community – connections that make us more than the sum of individuals. It’s so inspiring that for a brief moment we can even see the sound of the thunder (how cool is that?) before the fear makes us pull back, sending Moses up alone.  We need to take the inspiration of the encounter, of Sinai with us. It’s not in the two pieces  of stone engraved, it’s in each other. Here’s a crazy thought: we can be a piece of Sinai: made of earth, with boundaries of awe, a potential place of connection to the divine.

I chose Yonni for my thief’s name because Yonatan means gift from God. We are  gifts from God, the Giver, in partnership with our parents. Stealing is taking, somehow tipping the scale the other way.  God cares if we steal. To give, is to be God’s partner, to make the world more full and rich. We are sometimes takers too, but there is always the chance for redemption, by GIVING. Yonni takes to give to his family and ultimately uses his nature to give so much back, as does Robin Hood and Jean Valjean.  Bernie Madoff stole for sport and aggrandizement. I don’t know the rest of the story behind the cell phone thief, but I know there will be chances for redemption

We should not steal, but give, because we ARE gifts! Lead in to: L’dor Vador by Josh Nelson

I give you these fifteen, oops, Ten…


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