Date: February 9th 2018

AUTHOR’S NOTE: I found it unusually difficult to communicate the ideas of this Dvar in intelligible writing. I apologize if some find it unclear.


Parshat Mishpatim (23:1) contains the halacha (Torah law) that the courts do not accept the testimony of a person who had previously committed a major sin such as stealing.

A first reaction to this halacha would likely be: “This is obvious! What could be more elementary and straightforward? People who steal cannot be trusted to act honorably and testify truthfully.

The “Sefer Hachinuch” (published anonymously in 13th century Spain) in Parshat Mishpatim (Mitzvah 75) offers a different explanation for this halacha. “Anyone who was not compassionate to himself about (desisting from) his own evil deeds will not be compassionate toward others, and it is thus not appropriate to believe him in this matter.” It is not simply that people who steal cannot be trusted to tell the truth. Instead, when people steal they are acting cruelly toward themselves. This, in turn, predisposes them to lie in court and act cruelly to the one being defrauded by the false testimony. The act of stealing certainly creates an inclination to lie. Nevertheless, the Sefer Hachinuch is saying that the lack of compassion to self that was demonstrated when stealing is what most strongly predisposes one to future sins of false testimony. This requires further clarification. Seemingly the notion that “Crooks will lie in court” is a more intuitive and basic predictor of lyin
g than the idea that the cruelty-to-self committed when stealing will beget cruelty to others in the form of testifying falsely.

There are overarching human characteristics that manifest themselves in many disparate ways. Consider the major character trait of self-image - how one perceives himself. Those with a good self-image will tend to be more friendly, upbeat, confident, and so forth. Those with a poor sense of self-worth will act in an opposite manner. It can, therefore, be said that self-image is the starting point and determinant of many different human feelings and deeds.

What happens when someone with a mostly positive self-image commits a crime like stealing? Deep in the unseen areas of the mind the following drama is somehow played out: The sublime internal neshama (soul) mitigates on behalf of the person’s truly best interest: living honorably and not stealing. If one nonetheless then steals, it connotes a cruel affront to the sacred inner being that attempted to prevent the sin.

Parshat Mishpatim is describing an internal chain-reaction. An inner underlying cruelty toward one’s self leads to the destruction of one’s nobility of soul. That, in turn, makes the theft possible. Had this sequence not occurred, the person would not have sinned. Cruelty to humans then becomes an enduring part of that person’s psyche. This underlying cruelty, more than anything else, portends future lying in court that would cruelly deprive someone else of their just due. That this will likely transpire is what disqualifies the person from future testifying in court.

There are various references in Talmudic literature pointing to the ethic of “Kavod Hadam,” the honor of man - the notion that it is religiously important for a person to honor his or her self. This entails acting and speaking with nobility as well as being clean, neat, and to whatever extent possible, well-dressed (though not with ostentation).

The great pre-WW II yeshiva of Slabodka produced many of the outstanding Torah luminaries who built yeshivot and revived Torah study after the desolation of the Holocaust. Unique in this way among other yeshivot, Slabodka was known for its stress on the Torah’s ethic of Kavod Hadam. Surviving pictures of the most famous students of Slabodka show clean-shaven young men with (then stylish) long hair and elegant clothing. Someone once quipped that in Slabodka, if someone’s necktie was askew, it was seen as a lack of closeness to Hashem.

It can now be said that practicing Kavod Haadam will yield additional benefits. The Sefer Hachinuch taught that before virtually every human misdeed, a person first self-destructively disregards the inner voice of the Neshama that advocates for nobility and G-dliness. People who actively cultivate their own Kavod Hadam are acting in concert with the unremitting call of the neshama to act in an exalted manner. Accordingly, with all other factors being equal, a practitioner of Kavod Haadam will be far less prone to impropriety than someone else less attuned to Kavod Haadam.

This is an entirely revamped version of the Dvar that was previously emailed on January 23rd 2014.

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