A thief's dignity
by Rabbi Yaacov Chaiton
A few years ago as a student studying in the Rabbinical College in Melbourne, I was asked to spend the festival of Purim visiting prisoners in a facility in northern Victoria. We spent a good few hours of the day reading the megillah for the prisoners, talking to them and listening to them as they described life behind bars. I remember a certain inmate who was particularly grouchy. He complained about everything - the food, the living conditions, the wardens, the daily routine - everything. After hearing him out, we naively asked him if he could name one thing which was the absolute worst part about being in prison. I'll never forget his answer: "The food, the living conditions, the wardens are all bad - but they're manageable. Even the feeling of being locked up can be handled. But what's totally unbearable is that in prison you no longer have a name, you are no longer seen as a productive human being, you are nothing more than a number. The loss of basic human dignity, the feeling of worthlessness is intolerable."
In this week's Torah portion we read of many civil laws put in place for the maintenance of a functioning society. Amongst them we read the rules of a thief. A thief who was caught and convicted in court has an obligation to return to the victim double of the value of the object he stole. This applies to all stolen objects, except for two - an ox and a lamb: if a thief stole an ox or a lamb he is obligated to return five times the value of the ox to the victim and four times the value of the sheep. The logic being that unlike other objects which sit idle in their owner's possession, an ox and sheep constantly produce. An ox can be used for farm work and a lamb produces wool. To compensate the victim for this loss, the thief pays more than just the standard for regular stolen objects.
The distinction between the ox and the sheep does however require explanation: If both of them are so important to the owner, why does the Torah distinguish between the amount to be remunerated for a stolen ox and the amount to be paid for a stolen sheep? Why is the thief required to pay five-fold for the ox but "only" four-fold for the sheep?
Our Rabbis explain: A thief does everything to ensure that he doesn't get caught. Sometimes this may even mean doing something below his dignity. For example - when he steals a lamb and wants to make a quick getaway, the easiest way is to place the lamb on his shoulders and make a run for it - an act which he would generally consider to be beneath him. When the thief is finally caught and has his day in court he is surely ashamed that he has been found out. But there's an extra degree of shame when it's heard how he made his getaway - with the lamb on his shoulders. The entire courtroom bursts into laughter as they visualize this once respectable man running through the city streets in the dark of night with a lamb on his shoulders!
For this extra level of embarrassment - as negligible as it may seem in relation to his overall shame for being discovered as a thief - the thief gets a reduction. The price that he should be paying to gain atonement is five-fold (like the ox thief) but the Torah reminds us that even this thief is not just a number. He is a human being, with feelings and self-dignity. G-d cares for his feelings and his pride. The Torah therefore reduces his punishment one-fold to compensate him for his loss of dignity.
This knowledge itself - that despite his evil deeds, he is still seen by G-d as a human being with feelings and good character traits - will surely encourage the thief to better his ways and have more respect for his fellow man.