Parashat Vayiqra — Zakhor

רבי עקיבא אומר מה תלמוד לומר ומעלה מעל בה', לפי שהמלוה ולוה, והנושא והנותן, אינו מלוה ואינו לוה, ואינו נושא ואינו נותן אלא בשטר ובעדים, לפיכך בזמן שהוא מכחיש מכחיש בעדים ובשטר, אבל המפקיד אצל חבירו אינו רוצה שתדע בו נשמה אלא שלישי שביניהם בזמן שמכחיש מכחיש בשלישי שביניהם.

R Aqiva said, “What does it mean to say ‘He committed a trespass against Gd?’ When someone loans or does business, there’s no lender and no borrower, and no buyer and no seller who conduct business without a document and witnesses. Therefore, when one has a dispute, he is disputing the witnesses and document. But the one who entrusted his friend with an object doesn’t want anyone to know, save the Third Party between them [Gd]. When the friends disputes the claim [and keeps the object], he is disputing the Third Party between them. — Sifra Parsha 12 


[אבן שלמה יהיה לך…] זכור את אשר עשה לך עמלק: אם שקרת במדות ובמשקלות הוי דואג מגרוי האויב, שנאמר (משלי יא א) מאזני מרמה תועבת ה', וכתיב בתריה בא זדוןז ויבא קלון:


[An honest measure you should have]… Remember what Amalek did to you: If you lie about weights and measures, be worried from the predations of the enemy, as it says “False scales are an abomination before Gd,” and right after, it states “Highhandedness came and disgrace comes”— Rashi Deuteronomy 25:17


There is an oft seen phenomenon, where humans attempt to whitewash their ill-gotten gains through piety. I am reminded of a scene in one of Orwell’s books, where the villain suggests he will buy off the bad karma of his actions by paying for a couple of fish to be freed from the nets of local fisherman. We Jews are no strangers to the same impulse. Indeed, the Book of Isaiah begins and ends by rejecting and mocking the insincere and crooked worshippers who do just that, buying sacrifices with the profits of their sins.   

It is perhaps for this reason that our parasha, which deals with all sorts of sacrifices, ends with the laws of the Asham Gezelut, the Guilt Offering for Theft. This offering is brought for the sin of attempting to cover-up monetary crime by falsely swearing in Gd’s name that the alleged incident did not happen. This offering is unique among sin and guilt offerings in several respects. It comes to atone for an intentional sin, rather than a mistake caused by forgetfulness or ignorance, and it atones for sins between man and man, rather than man and Gd. It might seem wide open for abuse, but there is a catch. One cannot bring the asham, unless they first make restitution with the victims. Indeed, according to Netziv, the restitution is actually more important and urgent that the sacrifice. The restitution must be done immediately upon admission of guilt, but the sacrifice waits until the next holiday. Furthermore, one can only bring the sacrifice if they confess and make restitution out of their own initiative.  If they are caught and sentenced by the Court, the Torah has no room for retrospective contrition. So on the one hand, the Torah is allowing and encouraging people to atone for a sin, where we might not expect a ritual atonement to be provided. But on the other, the Torah sets strict boundaries to define a way to actually be contrite for the gravity of the action.

The Sages derive from the Torah’s language surrounding this sacrifice how serious the sin of theft really is. The Torah uses the same language to describe the act of theft here, as it did just before when describing misuse of Temple objects, “trespass against Gd.” Rabbi Aqiva says this is no coincidence. It’s not just that all sins violate Gd’s Torah. The person who assumes they can sin against their fellow in secret is deliberately violating their trust and also denying the existence of a just and moral authority over the universe. The person who thinks they can profit because they are out of reach of their follow man denies that all things ultimately stem from Gd Above.

Additionally, the person bringing the sacrifice has defamed Gd in a second way. They made themselves liable for the guilt offering because they swore that they were innocent of theft, and a court accepted their word. They brazenly used the trappings of their religion and piety to assert their innocence. “The seal of Gd is truth,” (Gemara Shabbat 55.) but this sinner attached Gd’s name to a falsehood. Worse, they were willing to defame the name of Gd in this fashion because he knew that doing so would put him out of reach of human authorities. They recognized human power, but they failed to recognize their Creator, even as they used the trappings of Judaism for evil. Truly, they committed a trespass against Gd.

The maftir reading this week is the special reading of Zakhor, the remembrance of Amalek’s attack against our people in the desert. Now Zachor and its haftara are not connected to our parasha, but rather to the Shabbat before Purim. Nonetheless, a similar theme about honesty and fear of Gd is found there.

In its normal place in the Torah, the passage before Zakhor deals with keeping accurate weights and measures. According to Rashi, drawing from Midrash Tanhuma, the passages are not juxtaposed at random. Someone who owns false weights should fear attack by Amalek.

When one overcharges through false measures, the victim is likely never to realize they have even been cheated. When caught, the perpetrator is likely to escape prosecution, arguing that they also didn’t know their scales were slightly miscalibrated or that the weights had simply lost some mass over time. After all, who can distinguish between two weights of near identical size?

In the words of Bava Metzia (61:), there is only One who can. Commenting on why Leviticus 19:35 connects honest weights to remembrance that Gd took us out of Egypt, Rava writes Gd proclaims that “I am He who distinguished in Egypt between the seed that became the firstborn and the seed that did not become a firstborn, and I will exact payment from the one who dips weights in salt [to cause them to oxidize slightly and subtly gain mass].”

The one who would cheat their fellows in secret does so because they fear society, but they do not fear the Creator. In this way, they are like Amalek, whose defining characteristic is “He did not fear Gd”. The Torah does not mean only that Amalek were idol worshippers. The Torah is saying that Amalek were people who preyed on the weak and defenseless in the belief no one could come to their aid. The punishment for dishonest weights fits the sin. The one who denies Divine Providence to prey on the defenseless loses Divine Providence from those who would prey on them.

White collar crime and cheating is often dismissively thought of as minor or common. But we see that is not the case. One who would steal by deception is denying Gd’s involvement in the world. For that reason, the Gemara in Shabbat 31 says the first question one is asked by the Heavenly Court on death is “Were you honest in business?” Worship and piety cannot pepper over dishonest business practice. To the contrary, someone who resorts to dishonesty shows they worship nothing at all.