Imprisonment was never accepted by the Torah as a legitimate form of penalization. In fact, the Lubavitcher Rebbe taught that even though the Torah includes many forms of punishment – such as fines, flogging, and even capital punishment – still, among all these various types of punitions, we do not find the punishment of incarceration in jail.

In the secular world, if someone is convicted of robbery, he will most likely find himself behind bars. In the Torah law, however, if someone steals (and cannot pay back), he is ultimately sold as a slave, and he works for 6 years at the home of a Jewish family.

The Torah, authored by G-d Himself, is giving us a fascinating insight into the criminal justice system. Namely, that it does not work. It does not create a society of true justice.

To be clear, it may work temporarily to hamper the specific behavior. But, for most cases, sitting in jail surrounded by other criminals and being controlled by other people, does not work to effectively change the root of the problem. In the U.S. alone, the rates of recidivism – a person’s relapse into criminal behavior, often after the person receives sanctions or undergoes intervention for a previous crime – are extraordinarily high. The average recidivism rate is about 70% within 5 years! This means that, within 5 years of their release, 70% of prisoners will have reoffended.

Instead of sitting in jail, Torah law mandates that the thief must serve time at a Jewish home. The experience of living in the Jewish home – seeing honest relationships, observing proper human connection, etc. – will hopefully be a learning lesson for the thief to give him the proper tools to become a self-sufficient and functional member of society.

We can suggest, however, that the Torah’s criminal justice system of requiring the thief to spend time in a Jewish home, is not only meant to be a lesson for the thief, but the experience is meant to be a lesson to the members of that home as well.
How so? Reb Zusha of Anipoli says something incredible.

In this week’s Parshah, the Torah (19:11) states: לא תגנובו – do not steal. Rashi says this is a reference to stealing things of monetary value. In HaYom Yom (3 Iyar), the Lubavitcher Rebbe states that every מדה – character trait – is meant to be channeled and used in the service of Hashem. He quotes from the holy Reb Zusha that there are 7 life lessons for our service of Hashem that we are meant to learn from a גנב, a thief: 1) He works quietly without others knowing. 2) He is ready to place himself in danger. 3) The smallest detail is of great importance to him. 4) He labors with great toil and effort. 5) He has tremendous alacrity. 6) He is extremely confident and optimistic. 7) If he does not succeed the first time, he will try again and again.

Who is wise? He who learns from all men. Even a thief? Sure, especially a thief!

There is something we can learn from everyone, and then channel those traits to our service of Hashem. So yes, the thief learns a lot from being in the Jewish home for 6 years. But, with this newfound outlook of Reb Zusha, there is also a tremendous amount that the members of the Jewish home can learn for their service of Hashem from the ways of the thief!

Have a holy Shabbos!