Many years ago my car was stolen from its spot outside our apartment in Michigan. In the middle of the night a police officer woke us up and informed me that someone had been pulled over while driving it with a smashed window down Northwestern Highway—had I by chance lent it to them? I had not, and I was relieved to get the car back, even in its battered state. I was also curious about my relationship with the person who had taken my car. Auto theft is a felony, and so the thief was criminally charged by the state, sentenced to imprisonment, and ordered to pay me restitution for the damage to my vehicle. He was not, however, asked to confess or apologize to me. I was left with annoyance, inconvenience and a deductible; he was left to the clutches of the penal system.
I used to visit a different prisoner in Jackson, MI, and wondered if I should look up my thief, but decided it was not a good idea. Still, I had the sense that while punishment had been meted out, an opportunity had been missed to repair the deeper tear in the social fabric. I remember protesting the system—what good does it do to me or anyone else for him to go to prison? Better that he be asked to apologize and pay a penalty to the victim of his crime.
That, at least, is what the Torah teaches. In our portion (Numbers 5:5-10) the Torah states, “When a man or woman commits any wrong toward a person, thus breaking faith with the Lord, and the person realizes his guilt, he shall confess the wrong that he has done. He shall make restitution in the principal amount and add one-fifth to it, giving it to him whom he has wronged.” This verse does not specify theft as the violation, but a similar passage in Leviticus 5: 20-26, specifies that the punishment for theft is to return the property to the victim plus a 20% fine. Read together, these passages indicate that property crimes do damage not only to the direct victim but also to society and even to God. For this reason restitution requires not only the return of property but also confession, a hefty penalty and even a sacrifice of purification.Continue reading