What’s the Difference that God Knows?

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim

Inflate your price in proportion to the many years [left until fields return to original owners in the Jubilee], and in proportion to fewer years until Jubilee, lessen your price: for it is the number of harvests you are selling. Man must not extort his fellow, and you shall fear God, for I am God your Governor. (Lev. 25:16,17) 

Rashi comments:

Here, Scripture warns against vexing others by words. One must not annoy his fellow-man, nor give him poor advice only for your own advantage. But maybe you will say, “Who knows whether I had any intention to do him evil?” Therefore Scripture says,“Fear your God”! He Who knows men’s thoughts, He knows your true intent! In all cases where it is a matter of conscience, when no one knows the truth except the one who has the thought in his heart, Scripture always states: “But fear God”!

Rabbi Markowitz asked a strong question: Of what relevance is God’s knowledge of man’s concealed theft? Harming others is sinful, regardless of God’s knowledge. The Rabbi is correct: regardless of God’s knowledge, robbery and deception are both evil. What then is Rashi’s lesson?

Let us consider: Lying is prohibited, yet Torah warns a judge from bias—a form of lying. Judges cannot favor a litigant and lie about his guilt. Judges must be loyal only to justice. Thus, in addition to not lying—a general theme—Torah sees fit to prohibit specific expressions, such as judges favoring litigants, even though this is a form of lying. As society needs courts, Torah identifies popular expressions of lying, in addition to the general prohibition to lie (Exod. 23:7). The necessity to prohibit many expressions of the same crime is due to man’s ability to delude himself by feeling that favoring a poor litigant with a favorable verdict is just, even when he is guilty (Rashi, Lev. 19:15). Judges may not view this as “classic” lying, as they can misconstrue their bias as a true good. Therefore, God makes violations very clear in major societal themes. Not only can one not lie, but judges can’t favor litigants. 

Commerce too is a major societal theme, and this includes produce and land sale. Each commodity is sold by a standard or unit. Produce is sold by weight, and land by the number of harvests remaining until the Jubilee. Here too man might succumb to instinctual drives, and although not “taking” something from another, he swindles a fellow for personal gain, using hollowed weights in produce sales, or lying about the number of yearly harvests in land sales. The crime of stealing is already known, but again, Torah sees fit to prohibit not only general sins, but also specific expressions.

Our verse above does not come to prohibit the core violation of stealing. Had this been the case, God’s knowledge would be irrelevant to the crime of theft. We now understand how God’s knowledge is relevant, as our verse addresses not stealing per se, but man’s crookedness: he denies God sees all. Telling us to “fear God,” Torah highlights the underlying unique crime identified here: feeling one can deceive others is corrected by God’s knowledge of our sins.