We have all heard the recent news that 26 Orthodox Jewish residents of Lakewood, New Jersey, were charged with defrauding the government by misrepresenting their income to collect public welfare benefits. As Jews, what should our reaction be when we hear things like this?
Before we look at the Torah’s perspective, let’s look at our fellow Jews’ reactions on social media. Many cheered the arrests and called for these people to receive the harshest penalty possible. Others expressed anger that the accused committed a chillul Hashem (desecration of G-d’s Name) and felt they should be punished for this treacherous act. Very few expressed compassion towards their Jewish brethren. Very few felt their pain and anguish during these difficult times. And even fewer were shocked at such accusations of wrongdoing.
How does the Torah say we should react when we hear such terrible news? In Parshat Kedoshim (19:18) we find the famous dictum of ve’ahavta l’reiecha kamocha (love your neighbor as you love yourself). Why is this required? The answer, according to the Ibn Ezra, lies in the next two words in the pasuk (verse), which many people don’t pay any attention to — Ani Hashem (I am G-d).
Explains the Ibn Ezra: Ani Hashem — ki ani Eloka (because I am G-d) echad barati etchem (when I created you [the Jewish people], I created you as one). Therefore, you must treat your fellow Jew as if he is you, because he is you.
Now the entire pasuk can be understood in context. The first part of the pasuk states, lo tikom (you shall not take revenge) v’lo titor (and you shall not bear a grudge) ve’ahavta l’reiecha kamocha (you should love your neighbor and overcome any negative feelings towards him, because) — Ani Hashem (I, Hashem created you as one).
The Talmud Yerushalmi in Masechet Nedarim corroborates the Ibn Ezra’s explanation of ve’ahavta l’reiecha kamocha with the following mashal (allegory). While chopping meat, the knife slips from a person’s right hand and accidentally cuts the left hand. It would be ludicrous for the injured left hand to avenge itself by cutting the right hand. So too, the entire Jewish nation is one body. It should be unthinkable for one Jew to take revenge against his fellow Jew. It would be like taking revenge on himself.
Let us now turn our attention to the current events in Lakewood. One of our limbs is suffering; therefore, we should feel pain. Instead of wanting it to hurt more, we should want to cure it. We should want to ease the pain and suffering and to remedy the situation. By feeling that we have the right to be angry at these people and that they should go to prison because they have broken the rules, it is as if we are saying “I’d rather cut off my arm than heal it.” Does this make sense? Reacting with anger towards our limb for sustaining an injury and saying that it deserves to be cut off as punishment is absurd.
Another problematic issue that I have seen on social media is that many Jews are judging these people as if they have already been found guilty. As Jews, we are required to abide by Halacha (Jewish law). The Talmud in Berachot states that if we see a G-d-fearing Jew sinning at night, we must assume the next day that he did teshuva (repentance). In other words, we should not harbor any ill will towards this person the day after his wrongdoing. Can we assume that the accused Lakewood residents are G-d-fearing people? Yes —– they are shomer Shabbat and shomer kashrut, and otherwise lead Torah lives. I myself can attest to their character, knowing several of these people personally.
Did we witness these residents committing fraudulent acts? Do we have personal knowledge of their alleged illegal activities? I think I can say that for most people, the answer is no, so surely we should give them the benefit of the doubt that they did no wrong, especially since they have merely been charged with committing fraud, not convicted of anything. Even secular law accords defendants the benefit of the doubt. That a defendant is innocent until proven guilty is one of the most sacred principles in the American criminal justice system.
Finally, during a recent discussion with a friend who happens to be a Torah scholar, he pointed out to me that the Lakewood fraud case does not even belong in the realm of judging others favorably, because one should only judge another if one is personally affected by the other’s actions. Even if these people committed fraud, it is akin to someone cheating on a test. Did the cheater do something wrong? Yes, but it has nothing to do with us. Hence, it is none of our business. As Jews, there is no mitzvah to be a yenta, contrary to popular belief.
By Avraham Hanukah
Avraham Hanuka is a simple Jew. Originally from Brooklyn, Avraham learned for 14 years at Ohr Ha’Meir in Peekskill, New York; Beth Medrash Govoha of America (also known as Lakewood East) in Jerusalem; Passaic Talmudic Institute in Passaic, New Jersey; and Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, New Jersey. He lives in now Silver Spring, Maryland, with his wife Tali.