The web we weave: The Eighth Commandment

The Ten Commandments: A series

Jewish Family Identity Forum

By Candace R. Kwiatek, The Dayton Jewish Observer, October 2010

Candace R. Kwiatek

Running late, I glanced hurriedly at my receipt as I left the checkout lane of a local discount store. Oh no! The small CD player I’d picked up on sale did not appear anywhere on the ticket. I had two options: leave it behind or find a way to pay for it.

Just because it was the cashier’s mistake was no justification to walk off with the merchandise. Minutes later, having paid for the item at the customer service desk, I double-timed it through the exit…only to set off the electronic alarm!  Fortunately, I had my receipt to prove I was no shoplifter.

The Eighth Commandment comes with no qualifications: “You shall not steal.” But all too often we try to justify our bad behavior.

Finders keepers. I was only borrowing it. I did it for a good reason. It’s not much. Some may even go so far as to blame the victim, as in not correcting the bank’s undercharge because the bank makes too much anyway.

Guests walk off with towels because “the hotel considers it an advertising expense.”

Moviegoers who buy a child’s ticket for a teenager complain “the theatre charges too much!”

We even have a whole host of euphemisms for thievery to make it a bit more palatable: rip off, appropriate, spirit away, borrow, pinch, fudge the numbers.

Why is the prohibition against stealing sandwiched on the tablet among the commandments against murder, adultery, bearing false witness and covetousness?

Robbery and burglary both permanently destroy the innocent victim’s sense of peace and security, a sin akin to murder.

Stealing is also a kind of spiritual adultery — the extreme result of worshiping things rather than God. Stealing inevitably leads to bearing false witness, lying either to oneself or to others as part of covering up. And coveting fosters the desire that leads to theft. Intertwined with myriad other sins, stealing is like a spider’s web.

“All through the rabbinic sources,” Richard Levy notes in the anthology Broken Tablets, “the gravity of this sin is amplified.”

He shares some examples:  “Let the property of every human being be as precious to you as your own…God did not decree punishment for the generation of the Flood until they began to steal. Shmuel said: Even if someone took a single beam of wood that did not belong to him and built it into a palace, he must demolish the entire palace — all of it — and return the beam to its owner.”

In a similar vein, Dennis Prager once noted that if he had to pick just one commandment by which the world would live, he would choose “You shall not steal,” because it is the foundation of all the others.

Doing evil in God’s name is stealing God’s reputation. Murder is stealing a life. Ignoring Shabbat is stealing God’s due acclaim.

Sometimes stealing is not as obvious as shoplifting, insider trading, pirating a DVD, or copying a friend’s computer program.

Keeping extra change from the cashier is theft. Borrowing without asking is stealing, the same as borrowing without returning or damaging a borrowed item and then not paying for repairs.

Choosing not to work — or not to even look for a job — when capable and healthy likely means you’re stealing from the “anonymous” public coffers.

And what about those time-share offers of benefits in trade for listening to a sales pitch? Is it stealing when you know you’re not going to buy?

Stealing always involves taking something that doesn’t belong to us, and we’ve all done it.

In fact, we often engage in behaviors that we don’t consider stealing at all. Do you run on “Jewish” time? Keeping people waiting is stealing their time, even if it is a cultural tradition.

Try setting your watch ahead so you have “a few minutes to spare.” Asking a shopkeeper to explain products and prices when you know ahead of time that you’re going to buy elsewhere is another kind of “time stealing.” Window shop only.

Do you use other people’s ideas without giving them credit? I’ve heard of bosses and companies that institute this thievery as business policy.  On a large scale it’s called industrial espionage, the theft of ideas and information from the competition. It is rampant.

In the Talmud, each speaker’s name accompanies his words, providing a clear model of giving credit where it is due.  Speakers, writers, and businesses should take note.

When we gossip or even listen to gossip, we steal another’s reputation.

When we ignore someone in passing, exclude him in a conversation, or fail to greet her pleasantly, we steal another’s wellbeing.

When we bully or publicly embarrass, we steal the victim’s sense of security and self-respect.

When we denigrate the work or looks or ideas of others, we steal their self-esteem.

When we dismiss another’s pain or denigrate someone’s joyous moment, we steal people’s emotions.

Even when we act unhappy, Dennis Prager notes, we are thieves, because we steal the pleasure and contentment of others.

Don’t take what doesn’t belong to you, the Eighth Commandment instructs. It’s a command that, when followed, will infuse every aspect of your behavior and your speech for the good. It’s a command that, when violated, will entangle you in an ever-growing web of transgressions. What web will you weave: lacework or snare?

Family Discussion: Share personal experiences, stories, or current events that illustrate material, intellectual, and spiritual theft. How are these thefts like webs?


Literature to share

A is for Abraham: A Jewish Family Alphabet by Richard Michelson. A perfect illustrated book to begin the year, Family Alphabet explores a variety of Jewish rituals, traditions, historical events and more all from the perspective of family, both ancient and modern.  It’s a celebration of Jewish heritage that’s great for the elementary reader and ideal for sharing between the generations.

We Plan, God Laughs: What to Do When Life Hits You Over the Head by Sherre Hirsch. In a chatty, story-filled style, Hirsch offers a 10-step plan for reflecting on who you are now and redirecting yourself to where you want to be. Although the chapters are short, expect to spend some time contemplating her thought-provoking and often challenging closing questions.

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell. Tipping Point explores the phenomenon of “social epidemics.” How do Hush Puppies shoes illustrate the factors that influence cultural behaviors such as fashion trends, crime waves, and TV hits? Using real world examples, Gladwell explores the influential power of key people, “stickiness,” and context.

Previous post

All in the family: The Seventh Commandment

Next post

What's your John Hancock? The Ninth Commandment