December 3, 2005
The prophet Malachi seems well aware of human nature. It is not atypical of human beings to be tempted to justify wrong actions which would normally seem unthinkable. People are sometimes even tempted to serve God in contemptuous ways. Malachi rails against such behavior: \”But you profane it (God\’s altar) when you say: \’The table of the Lord is defiled and the meat and the food can be treated with scorn.\’ You say: \’Oh, what a bother!\’ And you degrade it – said the Lord of Hosts – and you bring the stolen, the lame, and the sick; and you offer such as an offering. \’Will I accept it from you?\’ – said the Lord.\” (Malachi 1:12-3)
This verse plays an important role in a religiously significant discussion in the Talmud. The Mishnah rules that a stolen lulav (used in the celebration of Sukkot) cannot be used to fulfill the requisite commandment. In the ensuing Talmudic debate on this law, the sages weigh the extent of the application of this law. The rabbis who also understood human nature debate the dictates of human rationalization. They first note that perhaps this law only precludes the use of a stolen lulav on the first day of the festival where it is required that the lulav actually be owned by the person who performs the commandment but on the other days of the festival where a person can use a borrowed lulav perhaps it is also possible to use a stolen one. The Talmud records the following retort to this thesis: \”Said Rabbi Yochanan in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai: \'[One can not use a stolen lulav on any of the days of the festival] because it would be a mitzvah brought about by a sin (mitzvah haba\’ah baverah), as it is written: \’and you bring the stolen, the lame, and the sick\’ – stolen is equated lame – just as a lame animal cannot be repaired, so, too, something stolen cannot be restored to its previous status even if its original owner abandons ownership. (Adapted from Sukkah 30a)
The broader application of the principle found in this passage would seem to preclude the use of ill-gotten gain for altruistic purposes in order to assuage one\’s guilt over wrong doing. An act of tzedakah does not make a wrong act \”kosher\” and an immoral act cannot be considered acceptable to God. Malachi and the sages of the Talmud understood very well the human inclination to justify wrongdoing. Much as funds may be needed, God cannot accept service prompted by sin.