It Takes A Thief

Oct 29th, 2010 by Rabbi Simcha Weinberg in Portion of the Week
He is a great friend and neighbor. He is well-read, intelligent, insightful, and generous. So, when Debbie and I were stuck in Brooklyn and needed something from the house, we called him for help. The problem was that he didn’t (pretended to not) have a key. We needed a cat burglar, not a scholar teacher. No problem; our good guy neighbor is a skilled thief. You never know.

Andy is proud of his criminal skills, and prefers that I not mention that he has a back-up key to our home and the alarm code. He wants to be known as a thief. I’ll leave that to his wife, a prominent psychiatrist.

I am confident in stating that Andy never stole anything in his life, but that still does not clear him of suspicion.  Abraham was not satisfied in never having robbed anyone; it takes more to be cleared of all potential criminal charges.

“So the man entered the house, and unmuzzled the camels.” Rashi points out that if the Torah informs us of such a seemingly insignificant detail, it must be of supreme importance: “Abraham’s livestock were muzzled whenever they were away from home, so that they could not graze in other people’s fields.” Impressive behavior, but still unnecessary for the Torah to tell us as we already learned that, “Lot’s dishonest shepherds grazed their flocks on other people’s pastures. When Abraham’s shepherds rebuked them for stealing, they found a way to justify their actions.” (Rashi, Genesis 13:7) The Torah already taught us about the extreme care Abraham took to prevent even his animals from stealing. Why was it necessary to repeat as part of the Eliezer in the house of Laban story?

It is not enough to not steal, especially when dealing with Labans, or people such as Andy the Thief with dark secrets. In such situations we must go beyond normal care, to extremes, such as muzzling the camels as a sign that even our animals will not steal.

It is not enough to avoid conflict, or to simply stay away from arguments when we find ourselves in a conflict ridden environment.  We have to go to the opposite extreme in such situations, and work assiduously for peace.

Does this mean that we, who live in a promiscuous environment, should insist that women should dress in burkhas?

We are taught that Rebecca lived in such an environment, and yet, it is only at the moment when she meets Isaac that, “She then took the veil and covered herself.” (24:65) She did not wear her veil at home, in Aram Naharaim, a place without morals; she covered herself only when meeting her husband! Should she not have worn a veil while in Laban’s home to make a statement similar to Abraham’s with his muzzled camels?

There is a difference between a statement of honesty to one of modesty: Abraham signaled to the world that they were safe with him. He was not a threat. He would not take anything from them no matter how innocent or insignificant.  Abraham’s statement may have had a message of rebuke, but it was not a challenge. However, modesty is not an external statement, but an expression of internal dignity.  Rebecca’s veil would be meaningless to anyone other than an Isaac who would honor her dignity. A veil would only be a challenge to a society in which people feel entitled to grab what they want, no matter the feelings, morals, or desires of the victim.

There is a difference between a statement of modesty to a world that honors such statements and one to a world that ridicules such values. A veil in Aram Naharaim would have been a joke. Rebecca would have had to constantly go to further extremes to make her statement. She would have been living in a constant battle against her world, rather than fighting for her own dignity.

Ironically, the most important place to make a statement of internal dignity is only in an environment that would honor and respect such a statement. This is not to say that modesty and internal dignity are of supreme importance in a hostile environment. It is to say that modesty and dignity cannot be an expression of battle against society. It is an internal process of nurturing dignity; not a statement against the world.

I think of the new law in France against Burkhas, and think of a society that perceives the veil as a provocation.

I then think of a stranger in an elevator, remarking after a group of Satmar women exited, “Those women are beyond me. They are untouchable.” He noticed the look on my face and added, “I meant that as a compliment. They have something other women do not.”

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