Parshat Mishpatim, Exodus 21:1-24:18
One of the many laws we find in this week’s Torah portion of Mishpatim is the law of double restitution. The Torah tells us: If a thief is caught and the stolen article is found in his possession, he must make double restitution (to the victim) (Exodus 22:2).
Why does the Torah demand that the thief pay double? The commentaries explain that his bad intention was to gain (say) $100 for himself at the expense of $100 to his victim. The Torah makes the punishment fit the crime (midda k’negged midda) and does to him exactly what he planned to do to his fellow. The end result is that he will lose $100, and he causes the victim to gain $100.
Another answer comes from the famous Kabbalist from Morocco, Rabbi Avraham Azulai (1570-1644), known as the Knaf Renaim. He writes that the reason the Torah demands that a thief pay double restitution is that it is probably not his first time stealing. Therefore, we make him pay back for the “other time” as well.
The Torah is telling us that if you steal or cheat, you may get away with it a few times. But eventually, when you are caught, you will end up paying not only for what you stole now, but also for your previous crimes.
The many laws of Mishpatim are filled with wisdom and a code of conduct. They teach us principles of living and walking in the ways of Hashem.
Rabbi Eli Seidman is the director of pastoral care at the Jewish Association on Aging. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.