Naso: Stealing from a Convert

Parashat Naso: Stealing from a Convert

A convert recognizes the God of Israel as the creator of the world, and wishes to be part of the Jewish people.  Therefore, those who steal from a convert not only renounce their commitment to the victim – they renounce Heaven itself.

Rabbi Shaul Vider, Ra”m in the Claudia Cohen Torah/Army Program (Hadas) at Midreshet Lindenbaum

“Speak to the Israelites: When a man or woman commits any wrong toward a fellow man, thus breaking faith with Hashem, and that person realizes his guilt,  he shall confess the wrong that he has done. He shall make restitution in the principal amount and add one-fifth to it, giving it to him whom he has wronged. If the man has no kinsman to whom restitution can be made, the amount repaid shall go to Hashem for the priest—in addition to the ram of expiation with which expiation is made on his behalf.”  (Numbers, 5:6-8)

These three verses from our Parasha are engulfed within the many topics that are discussed. They appear between the passages describing the roles of the tribe of Levi and the purity of the camp, and the law of Sotah (the wife accused of adultery), the laws of the Nazarite, and the offerings of the tribal princes on the day the Tabernacle was inaugurated. Why, then, do these verses appear in this location, if we have already read of the laws of those guilty of theft in chapter 5 of the Book of Leviticus? The answer can be found in verse 8, which depicts a different reality than the one described in the original law.

Rashi explains that the thief in this week’s Parasha is one who had repented for his sin of theft, but has no one to return the stolen property to, since he had stolen from a “convert who had died, and has no heirs“. Since the thief would like to get rid of the property he had stolen, the solution the Torah devises is to give the priest currently serving in the Holy Temple an amount equivalent to the value of the stolen property.

Sforno explains why this act of theft is “a desecration of Hashem” – for by stealing from a convert, he had committed a desecration that the convert was exposed to after that convert had “come to seek refuge under his wings“. Thus, we can understand from this that stealing from a convert is unlike stealing from any other Jew. This is because the act of theft that had victimized the convert caused the convert to painfully question the value of Hashem’s commandments. The thief has thus desecrated Hashem’s name by being the cause of that.

According to Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, the restitution of the stolen property to the priest is akin to returning the property to Hashem. Yet in the case of stealing from a convert who has no heirs, the transgressor does something we haven’t seen before – he performs confession when returning the property to the priest. In other words, the Torah wishes to teach us the value of confession, which was also mentioned already in the Book of Leviticus – in fact, with regard to stealing from a convert.

In that case – what is the value of confession here? Unlike other biblical commentators who call these verses “the passage of theft from a convert”, Sefer Hachinuch calls these verses “the commandment of confession of sin”. The author states that “through the verbal admission of iniquity, the sinner reveals his thoughts and opinion: that he truly believes that all his deeds are revealed and known before God, blessed be He, and that he will not act as if ‘the Eye that sees’ does not see. Furthermore, through mentioning the sin specifically, and through his remorse about it, he will be more careful about it on another occasion not to stumble in the same way again…”

According to the author of Sefer Hachinuch, confession has two traits tied to the re-education of the sinner. One concerns the sinner recognizing that he had denied Hashem, who had forbidden him from stealing. The other is the understanding that a verbal expression of remorse helps a person be more cautious and avoid sinning again. In other words, if someone had wronged a convert who has no heirs, that person may perform full repentance as a baal teshuva, by restoring the stolen property and confessing his sins, and in so doing, renews his worship of the Almighty. Thieves who confess “refresh” their fear of Hashem and reawaken to the reality of Hashem’s oversight of his actions. They also elevate their good virtues and improve their personal behavior, as they become more conscious of their own actions.

This seems to indicate that the process of confessing having stolen from a convert resembles what the convert himself had done during the conversion process. During the convert’s lifetime, the convert recognized the God of Israel as the creator of the world, the God that sees the actions of human beings, and had commanded them to keep His commandments concerning how they are to behave in this world. These thoughts are what had prompted him to desire being part of the Jewish people. Those who steal from converts hadn’t just renounced those converts – they had renounced Hashem Himsef, in terms of having been commanded to keep Hashem’s laws. Thus, through verbal confession, the sinner is compelled to undergo a more meaningful process of internalizing what he had done to the convert. The sinner’s recognition of his actions corresponds with a convert’s recognition of the God of Israel, and wronging a convert is akin to wronging the God of Israel. If we study this commandment, through candid and genuine speech, it may make us cognizant of the role the fear of God plays in our own lives, and of how cautious we must be in our actions toward ourselves and others.

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