Man and G-d: Bava Kamma 79

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |
“The disciples of Rav Yochanan ben Zakkai asked him ‘why was the Torah stricter regarding a ganav, thief than a gazlan, robber?’” (Bava Kamma 79b) 
The Torah distinguishes between a ganav, one who steals clandestinely, and a gazlan who steals out in the open, say at gunpoint. The former must pay kefel, double the amount stolen whereas the latter pays back the amount he stole with no additional penalty imposed. This seems counterintuitive. It certainly seems worse and most definitely it is more frightening to be robbed at gunpoint than to be pickpocketed. 
Furthermore a ganav steals in private whereas a gazlan flaunts the law in public. Surely a public display of criminality is much worse than a sin committed in private. Why then is a ganav considered a more heinous criminal?
Rav Yochanan ben Zackai replied “The latter puts the honour of the slave on the same level as the honour of his owner, whereas the formerdoes not put the honour of the slave on the same level as the honour of the master.” In other words the gazlan is an equal opportunity offender. He respects and fears neither man nor G-d. While the gazlan is wrong one can understand his warped sense of consistency. However the ganav fears man but not G-d. It is the placing of man above G-d that so upset the Torah. 
This teaching is relatively well known. But what is perhaps just as significant - and is something I only noticed now - is the author of the teaching, Rav Yochanan ben Zackai and more specifically Rav Yochanan ben Zackai in dialogue with his students. 
This is not the only discussion between Rav Yochanan ben Zackai and his disciples. The Talmud (Brachot 28b) relates that when Rav Yochanan ben Zackai was on his deathbed his students gathered around him and asked him for a blessing. He responded “May the fear of heaven be upon you as the fear of man.” His students were not very impressed exclaiming “is that all?” Clearly they were expecting more profound words from their teacher, the one literally responsible for saving Torah with his courageous leadership during the Roman conquest of Jerusalem and subsequent destruction of the Temple. Surely they did not need Rav Yochanan ben Zackai to tell them about the importance of fearing G-d. They were looking for something more profound, some deep insight their master had, a lesson that could be taught by no other. Rav Yochanan ben Zackai simply responded “halevai”, if only. If only man would fear G-d as he feared man[1]. “Know, when a person commits a sin he says ‘may no man see me.’” 
Fearing G-d is no easy matter. It is much easier to fear our fellow man than an abstract, “distant” G-d whom we can neither see nor hear. And being a Torah scholar makes little difference. Rav Yochanan ben Zackai was talking to his students, to those who would rebuild Judaism after the destruction of the Temple, to those who would lay the groundwork for the development of the Oral Law and whose words and teachings we encounter on every page of the Talmud. “Five [main] students did Rav Yochanan ben Zackai have and these are them: Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurkanus (known as Rabbi Eliezer hagadol), Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananiah, Rabbi Yossi the Kohen, Rabbi Shimon ben Netanel and Rabbi Elazar ben Arach.” (Avot 2:8). It was these greats who needed to be told to fear G-d as much as man[2]
Rav Yochanan ben Zackai understood that one of the great “dangers” of being a great scholar is that one’s laudable accomplishments often lead to arrogance, to diminishing G-d’s role in our success. It may be unintentional but it may also be unavoidable. Strange as it may sound often it is the simple Jew who displays greater fear of heaven than the great Torah scholar[3]
Is it any wonder that Rav Yochanan ben Zackai taught that a ganavis worse than a gazlan?
[1] This reminds me of how at least once a year Rav Herschel Schachter would give a shiur stressing the importance of the prohibition of stealing. He would tell us, his students, that people often complained wondering why he had to talk about something everyone knew instead of giving a “real” shiur. His simple answer was similar to that of Rav Yochanan ben Zackai, if only. Halevai yeshiva students would all be honest in business, would pay their taxes etc. etc. The best and most important teachings are often the ones with the most basic of messages. 
[2] In truth we need to fear G-d much more than man. And Rashi interprets the students’ response as puzzlement as to why one only has to fear G-d as much as man. Should it not be much more so? To this Rav Yochanan ben Zackai responded that if we feared G-d as much as man at least we would not sin.
[3] The Netziv notes that the priestly blessing “may G-d bless you and guard you” is a prayer that our blessings should not turn into curses. The Netziv explains that a Torah scholar needs protection from the all too common pitfall of scholarly arrogance.