Thou Shalt Not Steal: A Controversial Commandment?

Sermon delivered February 17, 2006, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

My life of crime was traumatic and short-lived. My family was vacationing with another on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, staying in a rented apartment. I was about ten years old. We boys were starting a charcoal grill to cook dinner. We had briquettes, but no lighter fluid. An older friend, to whom I am close to this day, urged me to go, look around at the grills sitting outside the other apartments, to borrow some lighter fluid. I asked him if I should knock on the door, to ask if we could use the fluid. He advised against it, saying it was no big deal; we would, after all, return the can. Oy. I found lighter fluid. I’m sure I looked terribly guilty. Certainly, that’s how I felt. As soon as I picked it up, a woman rapped on the window. A man came out and wrested the can of lighter fluid from my grip. I ran back to our apartment in hysterics.

I had broken the law, and I knew it. I had stolen. I had breeched one of the Ten Commandments, and not just any one, but a big one, which everyone could understand. “Thou shalt not steal.” It’s right up there with murder, as something that no right-thinking person would ever do. Right?

The longer I have lived, though, the more I have found that many people in our society steal. Upstanding individuals, respected members of our community, are thieves. We do not think of them as sinners, nor do they consider themselves to be criminals. Stealing has become so common, in fact, that most of our society rationalizes a wide variety of property crimes as “not really wrong.” After all, “everyone does it.”

Some years ago, President Clinton selected a woman named Zoe Baird to be Attorney General of the United States. Judge Baird, though, had an ethical lapse. She and her husband had employed an illegal alien as a household employee. They had not submitted payroll taxes for this worker. Immigration issues aside, Judge Baird was a thief. She had stolen, from her employee and from the people of the United States, by failing to pay taxes. Ultimately, President Clinton withdrew Judge Baird’s nomination. Nevertheless, few people thought of Zoe Baird as a criminal, much less as a thief. Not many would have considered her to have been in violation of the Ten Commandments.

When we think of stealing, most of us conjure up the image of the bandit who breaks into a home and takes the jewelry and electronics. We may picture a mugger, or worse, an armed robber. No decent, civilized person would engage in these crimes. Our society uniformly abhors such sinful behavior, and throws the book at these criminals, as well we should. And yet, we tend to overlook the kinds of thievery that are regularly committed by people more like you and me.

This very week, some folks who were once considered to be fine, upstanding, brilliant businessmen and generous philanthropists in Houston find themselves on trial. Former top executives of Enron are indicted on numerous counts. To be sure, they are innocent until proven guilty, which they have not been, at least not yet. My lighter fluid escapades did not set me up to understand the financial intricacies involved with the Enron scandal. As best as I can understand, though, a key allegation is that these folks told the world that their company was achieving unprecedented success, with more to come, even as they knew that the corporation would soon collapse around them. They apparently sold their stock, reaping millions upon millions in profits. At the same time, less fortunate folks, who lacked inside information, bought more Enron stock, and ultimately saw their life’s savings dwindle to nothing. The charges against these former executives are complex. The bottom line, though, is that they seem to have been thieves. They inflated the price of their stock, by telling lies. Then, they sold their stock, reaping huge financial windfalls. Their fellow stockholders, not to mention the folks who bought the stocks they sold, ended up with shares that were not worth the paper on which they were printed. If the allegations are true, these executives stole from their workers, and from their fellow investors, no less than if they had robbed them at gunpoint.

They are not alone.

Let us consider the music-lover, who downloads songs onto her Ipod, without paying for the right to do so.

And what about the small business, which buys a couple of licenses for a program that several of its employees must use, and then copies the software onto multiple computers?

At this season, not only do we read the Ten Commandments from the Torah, as Ricky will do tomorrow morning, we are also preparing our annual federal income tax returns. How many restaurant workers will declare, as part of their income, less than the full amount they received in tips? How many wealthy people will fail to declare complicated sources of income that are hard to trace? How many others will find myriads of methods of cheating on their taxes, in ways that are most unlikely to be detected? And how many of us will think of them as thieves? Aren’t taxes basically bad anyway? Wouldn’t a person be silly, to pay taxes that he or she could get away without paying? And how many have argued that the tax valuation of their home was too high, only to seek quite a bit more, when the time comes to sell?

All too often, as we seek to get the best financial deal for ourselves, we rationalize that “everyone does it.” We imagine that our crime has no victim, and is therefore no crime at all. Who among us wants to be the “sucker,” paying what the law would truly require, when we presume that few others do so?

And what of the Temple members, with no special hardship, who set their dues on the claim that they make an amount that is, in truth, a fraction of the household income?

Who is the victim? The multi-millionaire rock star? The distant and incredibly successful software company? The evil Internal Revenue Service and the faceless government? The amorphous Temple Board?

This week’s Torah portion suggests that the victim is none other than God. Yes, we may divide the Ten Commandments among those that regulate relations between human beings, and others that speak specifically to our interactions with God. Certainly, “Thou Shalt Not Steal” is among the mitzvot that involve our treatment of others. Nevertheless, God is the M’tzaveh, the Commander. When we transgress these laws, we harm the divine image. We alienate ourselves from God.

When we steal, in whatever form, we place our own temporal needs above what is right. If our highest standard is, “I won’t get caught,” we have joined ourselves to the lowest level of humanity. We are no different from the stick-up man. We are thieves. We are part of the crowd that engages in wrongdoing, serving ourselves up as justifications for others to do wrong, as well. Turning ourselves into robbers, we have become the victims of our own actions, for we have made ourselves less than human.

Perhaps worst of all, when we engage in any manner of thievery, we teach our children that our own monetary desires supersede ethics. We show our offspring that honesty and integrity are empty words, since we will so easily abandon them if they cost anything. As the Rabbis taught, aveirah goreret aveirah, “One sin leads to more sin.” Once we are thieves, why not steal? And if we be robbers, how can we expect anything different from our children? They, too, are our victims, whether they are our own offspring or other young people in our community, who follow our lead.

This Shabbat, as we study the Ten Commandments, let us recommit ourselves to what ought to be among the simplest of its charges. If we be not burglars, let us also not steal copyrighted music or software. If we be not armed robbers, let us also not steal from our Temple or from our nation. And let every single one of us who employs another person, even in our own homes, commit ourselves to filing the proper forms and paying the required payroll taxes. Yes, it’s a pain in the neck. No, we’re not likely to get caught if we don’t do it. But failure to do so is a crime with victims: Our employees, our neighbors, ourselves, our children, and our God.

“Thou Shalt Not Steal” does not sound like a controversial commandment. Nor is it, really. Those who transgress these words have generally constructed rationalizations, not much different from the idea that I wasn’t really stealing that lighter fluid, since I planned to return it. In truth, if we think twice, we don’t really believe those justifications. We know that stealing is wrong. It’s what we tell our children, irrespective of what we do. Thievery is against the laws of Torah, and contrary to the will of God. Let us all recommit ourselves, not just to lip service, but to adherence to the Ten Commandments and many more. Let us not steal, in any form, and let us be right with God.