Leviticus/Vayikra - Kedoshim
May 2008, Contributed by Asher ben
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This week's torah portion, Kedoshim, teaches us the laws of being honest with our weights. This is not about diets but about weighing merchandise for customers. Before the invention of the electronic scale it was customary to weigh the merchandise on one side of the scale against stones on the other side. Tampering with these stones (even putting them in salt which makes them slightly smaller) is a sin. The verses warning us about these laws are followed by a verse reminding us that G-d is the one who took us out of Egypt.
What is the connection between leaving Egypt and this law?
Rambam (based on the Midrash) writes in his laws of theft that anyone who denies the laws of the weights is to be considered as denying the exodus from Egypt which is 'the beginning of the commandments', and anyone who accepts this commandment is considered to be accepting the exodus which 'is the cause of the commandments.
One explanation given to this connection is that tampering with the weights is done secretly which shows that the one doing so is under the impression that G-d does not see his actions. This in contrast with the open wonders that took place in Egypt which show that G-d is on top of every situation.
Based on this explanation we would expect a reference to the miracles in Egypt in connection with every sin done in secrecy. All stealing and deceiving should fall in that category, something we do not find in the Torah.
Why is it that Rambam mentions that leaving Egypt is the beginning and reason for this commandment? Isn't that true for all the 613 commandments?
The mitzvah of the unfair weight differs from other laws dealing with dishonesty.
One does not transgress the mitzvah of stealing unless he actually stole. In order to be punishable one must steal something the worth of a 'pruta'. This is a very small coin worth several cents in today's currency. Nevertheless it remains a minimum amount.
Unjust weights one is not allowed to make or keep in his possession. Even if they were never used one transgresses this law. And as opposed to all other laws, there is no minimum measurement. Any slight change in the weight is punishable.
Why this stringency?
We'll understand this by explaining the difference between regular stealing and cheating the customers with unfair weights.
A thief is only involved with one deed. A bad deed. His sole intention is to take away money from someone else unrightfully. The cheating merchant on the other hand is doing two contradicting actions. He is measuring the merchandise to show the customer he is getting what he is paying for. This is an act of righteousness. Yet at the same time he is cheating him by not using real weights! That is sheer hypocrisy!
When the Torah makes rules about stealing, the focus is on the person that has been stolen from. Once he has lost the minimum amount the Torah considers an object of worth, the thief needs to replace that and has to be punished for his deed. The laws of cheating focus on the bad character of the cheater. This is evident as soon as the person creates or possesses unjust measuring equipment.
This explains why Rambam wrote that one who 'denies' the laws of the unfair measurements is as one who denies the exodus. We would have expected a different wording. Something like 'whoever keeps the laws'. A thief expect G-d to be upset about his actions the same way he knows all humans will be. He doesn't deny that, he just chooses to ignore it. The cheater denies the fact that G-d can be upset about being dishonest at heart even before he caused any financial loss to his fellow.
This, according to the Rambam, has to do with the story of the exodus from Egypt as we will now see.
In the laws of repentance he discusses free will. Although G-d knows the future and knows who will sin tomorrow, this does not take away free will. No one is forced to sin. The same way our knowledge of past events do not force those events, so does G-d's knowledge of future events not force those. Humans live in a system of time so they can only read history books. G-d is higher than time so he can read the future book too. But that has no influence on the actions of the person.
This even applies to prophecies in the Torah, Rambam continues. When G-d said "this nation will turn away and serve idols etc" this did not give anyone specific the right to be one of those turning away. And when G-d foretold Avraham that his descendants would be slaves, this did not give any Egyptian the right to be the one to enslave them. These are all actions the sinner is accountable for, for they were done out of his bad nature.
There are great sages who argued with this theory. They say that if G-d were to confront one of the idol worshippers and tell him that He had never decreed on him specifically that he was going to sin, he would be able to answer: "If not on me, than on who did you decree? On the people who didn't sin? Obviously you had me in mind!".
Concerning the case of the Egyptians they explain that the reason why they were punished is not because they enslaved the Jews on their own. Rather because they over did it. G-d had spoken about a little pain, they forced them into backbreaking labor.
Since the contra argument against the Rambam claims that only the extra dose of slavery is what caused the punishment, it follows that Rambam is not of that opinion. He maintains that whatever they did was considered part of the prophecy to Avraham that a nation was going to hurt his children.
As to the argument that every sinner can claim that after all is said and done the fact remains that G-d had already decreed that this would happen, we answer the following. When G-d decides that someone needs to be punished for some wrongdoing by a punch in his face, this punch does not have to be given by anyone specific. It is up to the puncher to decide to make his fist and forcefully bring it into contact with the face of his opponent. G-d will not thank him for helping him in meting out punishments but will in turn punish him. Not so much for his deed, but for his bad nature that made him do it.
The same applies to the Egyptians. According to the Rambam they were indeed 'helping' G-d fulfill his prophecy. But no one asked them to. They ended up being punished for these actions because their evil nature made them do it.
This applies to all the Egyptians, none of whom had received specific instructions from G-d to be the one to enslave the Jews. But what about pharaoh? He was the king in whose country they lived. About him we can say that he had no choice but fulfill G-d's will to enslave the Jewish people. Why then was he too punished?
Indeed, if his intentions had been to fulfill a mitzvah, he would not have been punished. His punishment came as a result of his intentions. Since he decreed all his evil decrees out of his own sadistic nature, he was a candidate to receive G-d's punishment together with all his subjects.
To summarize, ALL Egyptians were punished as a result of their bad intentions. The regular people because they volunteered out of ill intentions to be the ones to fulfill G-d's prophecy, and Pharaoh ONLY for his bad intentions although he was forced to do the actions.
This explains the connection between the miraculous punishments in Egypt which were given for bad characters and not for the deeds, and the laws of cheating which are also given for the bad character even before there is any actual cheating.
Rambam picked this specific mitzvah to mention that leaving Egypt was the beginning of all Mitzvot.
The Midrash tells us that Amalek attacked "on your way out of Egypt" as a result of not keeping the laws of unjust measures. Amalek is called the 'first' of nations. Here too we find the concept of beginning. What is the meaning of this?
Preparing or maintaining these weights is also only a beginning. The cheater is not sticking his hand in someone else's pocket to steal. He 'only' cheats him as he is 'honestly' measuring the merchandise. The Torah warns us that such a beginning will have an end that will be far worse. This is the tactic of Amalek. The numerical value of Amalek is equal to that of the word 'safek' which means doubt. Amalek is not a feeling of complete rebellion against all the mitzvot. It starts with a little doubt in one of them. In the words of the Torah (not to have) "a stone and a stone". Having one 'kosher' stone and one altered version is a sin. Amalek tells us to have two measuring stones. Be religious in shul but take it easy on G-d at work or at home. That is what the Torah warns us for.
Keeping one yardstick for everything we do, bringing G-d into all aspects of our life equally, leads us to fulfill the Torah in its entirety.
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