SCALES OF JUSTICE
by Rabbi Alexander
The 19th chapter of Leviticus contains a long series of mitzvot, most of which regulate our conduct towards our fellow Jews, including the famous commandment, "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18).
The 19th chapter of Leviticus contains a long series of mitzvot, most of which regulate our conduct towards our fellow Jews, including the famous commandment, "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18). The chapter ends with the mitzvah to maintain accurate weights, measures, and scales, and then concludes: "I am Hashem your G-d, who took you out of the land of Egypt" (ibid. 19:36). Based on this juxtaposition, our sages teach that "one who denies the mitzvah of honest weights and measures is considered to have denied the exodus, and one who accepts this mitzvah is considered to be a believer in the exodus."
Why would someone who uses an inaccurate scale be considered to have denied such a fundamental tenet of Judaism? For that matter, why is violation of this mitzvah so much more severe than any other kind of dishonest or even criminal behavior, such as outright stealing? In fact, one would transgress this mitzvah merely by having such a weight or measuring container in the house, even if it is not being implemented and nobody is suffering any loss because of it!
The answer is that a thief, or a storekeeper who openly overcharges for merchandise, etc., makes no pretense of being honest at all. They are obviously out to get your money. A merchant who uses a false weight, though, is acting hypocritically: he claims to be giving you your money's worth otherwise he wouldn't bother weighing out the merchandise at all and at the same time he is cheating you. So not only does Hashem forbid such hypocritical behavior, but He goes so far as to forbid a person from owning such a weight at all, even if it is not actually used for measuring. This demonstrates that even thinking about harming someone else is not to be tolerated, even when no actual harm occurs.
We find a similar concept in connection with the Egyptians' enslavement of the Jewish people and the plagues that Hashem sent upon the Egyptians as punishment. Many of the classical Jewish commentators grapple with the question: Hashem had told Abraham long in advance that the Jewish people would be enslaved for several hundred years. Why were the Egyptians punished if they were just carrying out the Divine plan?
One approach, taken by the Rambam (Maimonides), is that even though the Jewish people were fated to be enslaved in Egypt, every individual Egyptian had the free choice to opt out of being the instrument for G-d's plan. As such, anyone who chose to join in subjecting the Jews to slavery incurred Divine punishment for making that choice. According to this approach, the Egyptians did not actually cause any harm to the Jewish people which was not already Divinely ordained and inevitable. Their punishment was not because of their actions, but because of their intentions.
Someone who denies the mitzvah of honest weights and measures who agrees that he may not actively cheat someone else, but refuses to believe that Hashem would forbid us to have dishonest intentions is missing the whole point of the exodus from Egypt. According to his way of thinking, the Egyptians did not deserve to be struck with the ten plagues. He would view the whole process leading up to the exodus as just a series of capricious acts of G-d, rather than the ultimate demonstration of Hashem's justice.
On the other hand, one who accepts that Hashem wishes us to keep not only our actions but also our thoughts under control, understands and accepts the basis of the exodus from Egypt. Such a person is also well on the way to being prepared as we are all readying ourselves now during this period of the counting of the omer to receive the Torah on the festival of Shavuot and declare, "We will do and we will listen!"
This essay was adapted from an address by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of blessed memory.
Rabbi Alexander Heppenheimer writes from Atlanta.
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