Balancing the Scales

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Years ago, when my sister was in another city, she was the victim of a violent attack headlined in the morning’s newspapers, which also reported that my parents had immediately traveled there to be at her hospital bedside. When I hurriedly returned home (I still lived with my parents, as most young women I knew did in the 1950s until they married) from university classes that very afternoon, thieves — human vultures, believing the house empty — had already been there before me. It had been ransacked.

Just in case you think a thief and a robber are synonyms for people who take something from you that doesn’t belong to them, think again! In the Talmud, a distinction is made between a thief (a “ganaf”) and a robber (a “gazlan”). Really? What’s the difference? Either way, they take our things and cause us grief!

According to the Talmud, a “ganaf” intends to remain invisible to the property owner; that is, his thievery is by stealth. A “gazlan,” on the other hand, is someone who robs you by confronting you, and, unfortunately, there may even be violence. There is a caution, though: A ganaf who intends to remain invisible to the property owner may become a gazlan under certain circumstances. When? If the ganaf is surprised and becomes violent (i.e., a gazlan) upon being seen.

Which one does the Talmud consider worse? You may be surprised to find out that a ganaf is considered even more reprehensible than a gazlan because the people whose property has been taken by an invisible thief don’t know where the threat to them – the violation of their property — came from. It could occur again, at any time, leaving them uneasy, even in their own homes.  On the other hand, those stolen from by a gazlan may also become uneasy when they can actually identify a gazlan who hasn’t been apprehended.

It is hard for most of us to believe that there are people who thrive on profiting from others’ misfortune, compounding it in fact. Yet one of the ugly things that all too often follow loss of life and property in the face of natural disasters like the horrific wildfires so recently fought in California – or the floods experienced in Puerto Rico and Houston and elsewhere – is their aftermath, looting.  

There are other consequences, emotional ones. The medieval scholar, Rashi, taught that people who have been robbed may go into a state of abandonment of hope, what the Talmud calls “conscious ye’ush.” It all depends, the Talmudic rabbis believed, on whether those robbed have given up any hope of recovering their property or still hope to recover or restore the loss – to rebuild. Only life cannot be restored. Fortunately, although harmed physically and emotionally for a long time, my sister did not lose her life.

Although property and life do not weigh evenly on the scales of consequence, age also comes into the equation as a determinant. The young, of course, bounce back more quickly; there is time for new dreams in their life spans.  But can older people harmed by the acts of others or by natural disaster find the strength to rebuild their lives? “Halakha (Jewish law), writes Rabbi David Hartman, “does not permit spiritual incapacity…. [1]. Every day is a new day, and every day promises hope.” As an older person who became a rabbi late in life, this is something I believe with all my heart.

[1] “Sinai and Exodus: Two Grounds for Hope in the Jewish Tradition,”…, Vol. 14, Issue 3, David Hartman, October 24, 2008, 378.

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2017. All rights reserved.