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Thought for the Day: Undoing the Effect of Stealing

You may already know this, but just to be clear: HaShem runs the world.  Obvious, right?  Well... the Chovos HaLevavos carries this to its logical conclusion and notes the following two facts.  If you are supposed to have something -- even something of great value -- then no one can prevent you from having it, nor can they take it away from you.  If, on the other hand, you are not suppose to have something -- even something of absolutely trivial value -- then there is no way you can keep it in your possession.

How then, you are wondering, is it possible to have steal anything?  In fact, how can stealing be an aveira?  Wait... how can there even be free will?!  Hang on, hang on... that, of course, is a ridiculously complex subject, but let's stick to our original question and a surface answer.  Stealing means taking someone else's stuff without their permission.  It doesn't matter that the thief couldn't have taken it and the victim couldn't have lost it unless HaShem wanted that to happen.  That's HaShem's issue.  The thief's issue is that he has stolen property in his possession and the Torah has prescribed a course for him to follow.  Theft is a lav sh'nitek l'asei; there is, however, a machlokes about precisely what is entailed in that asei.

The discussion storms around an interesting halachik anomaly known as "gezel ha'ger".  The Torah says that stolen property needs to be returned (that's our asei), but if the victim has died and has no relatives, then the property needs to be returned to HaShem via His agents, the kohanim.  How, wonders the gemara, is it possible that a Jew has no relatives?  After all, trace back far enough and all Jews come from Yaakov Avinu, right?  Oh, wait... right... it must be a ger who has no children; nebbuch.  So Shmendrick stole from our childless ger, whom we'll call Geiry.  Shmendrick hears that Geiry has died and feels badly about having stolen his cholent, so he heads up to Yerushalyim to return the value of the cholent ($15.37, with tax) to the kohanim.  On the way, he meets none other than... Geiry!  Shmendrick runs over to Geiry, who says, "Listen, I see you want to return the value of the cholent you stole.  I'll retroactively turn that into a $15.37 loan.  You just repay me, and we'll be even."  (Geirim are like that... they'll give you the shirt off their back.)   As Shmendrick is (with a tear of joy in his eye) reaching for his wallet, Geiry has a heart attack and dies.  "Great," thinks Shmendrick, "Now what do I do?!"

R' Yossi HaG'lili says that Shmedrick can keep the money.  Good ole Geiry corrected the theft by turning it (even retroactively) into a loan.  Now that Geiry is dead, all his property is hefkeir, Shmendrick has the money in his pocket, so he acquires it.  R' Akiva, though, says, "No way!  You haven't fixed up the sin until that money leaves your pocket!" (Bava Kama 109a)

So you are left with a machlokes tana'im.  My advice: don't steal from geirim; after all, some of my best friends are geirim.


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