From HaGaon Rav Zevadia HaCohen Shlit”a, The Head of the Batei Din in Tel Aviv
(translated by our dear friend Rav Daniel Levy Shlit”a, Leeds UK)
This Shabbat we shall read the laws between man and his fellow. These include the Hebrew slave and maidservant, damage between two oxen and between oxen and people, and the laws of custodians and theft. In the laws of theft we see a discrepancy in the laws of payment. Whereas with general cases of theft a double payment is imposed, in contrast to this, when stealing animals, there are cases where 4 or even 5 times the value are paid. And so it states, “If a person steals an ox or sheep and then slaughters or sells it, he must repay 5 oxen for each ox, and 4 sheep for each sheep” (Shemot 21:37). In a case of the theft of oxen, where it was then sold or slaughtered, 5 times the value of the stolen item is paid, and if it was a sheep that he stole and sold or slaughtered it, then he is required to pay 4 times. What is the reason for this distinction and what is the difference between them?
Rashi z”l quotes Rebbi Yochanan ben Zakai who explains the distinction and difference between them. Hashem took pity on people’s dignity. An ox walks on its own feet and as such, the thief doesn’t have to carry the animal on his shoulders, therefore he pays 5 times. However, a sheep, which he does carry on his shoulders he pays 4 times, because he endured a level of indignity in doing so. Rebbi Yochanan ben Zakai’s words reveal a stunning principle, that the severity of the punishment is commensurate not just in relation to its transgression but also to the manner in which it was transgressed. Meaning that a sin that was easily committed with little effort and no indignity has a harsher punishment than a sin that required effort and endured indignity. Therefore when stealing an ox that walks on its own accord, when he doesn’t experience any indignity, he pays 5 times, but a sheep that he has to lift onto his shoulders and he has some indignity and effort, his payment is reduced to 4 times.
We see this principle also in the Chag of Purim. The Talmud Megillah [12a] asks why were the Jewish people punished so severely, “…to destroy, to slay and to exterminate all the Jews from young to old, children and women, in one day” [Esther 3:13]? The Talmud answers that because they benefited from Achashveirosh’s seudah. It is astonishing that because they ate Gentile [cooked] food they should be killed? However, if we carefully analyse this we see that it doesn’t say that “they ate” from Achashveirosh’s seudah but rather that “they benefited”. The punishment for this isn’t measured based on the act alone but it also considers the way in which it was performed. Therefore, since they didn’t just eat treif meat and Gentile [cooked] food but that they also “benefited” from this meal, then the weight of the sin’s severity is unquantifiable. Therefore the barometer for the retribution is much higher and therefore they were punished with the decree “to destroy, to slay and to exterminate”.
If this is so with a sin, then all the more so with a mitzvah that a person performs. There is a great distinction between a mitzvah that a person does easily, when he is experiencing tranquillity with no difficulty or indignity, or without effort, in contrast to a mitzvah that he persons with simchah even though it is difficult for him to do it so. Or if his environment is hostile to people who perform mitzvot, and despite this, he prevails against this and performs the mitzvah. Then the level of his reward is incomparably greater and he will merit to unique Divine assistance in all his actions, and about him it states, “His heart was elevated in the ways of Hashem (Divrei HaYamim 2, 17:6).
We should fulfil the Torah’s mitzvot with joy and enthusiasm in all circumstances and at all times to give pleasure to our Designer and to perform the will of our Creator, Amen.