Sometimes we come across a statement that truly perplexes us. The following ruling of Maimonides,1 based on the Talmud,2 is one such statement:

Anyone who robs another person of even a tiny amount,3 it is as if he took his life away from him. As indeed it is written,4 “Such is the fate of all who are greedy for money; it takes the life of its owner.”5

We can all understand that it is wrong to rob someone, even if the amount is small. The amount is not the issue; it is immoral to take someone’s property.

But murder? However criminal it may be to steal, how can that be compared to assassinating someone? One can always retrieve money, but once a life is lost, it is gone forever. Money is only a means to an end; a life, however, has intrinsic and infinite value. How can it be said that robbery is analogous to taking a life?

Commentators have struggled to explain this teaching. Commenting on the Talmudic teaching upon which this is based, Tosafot6 states that the comparison to murder refers to a case where the person is starving and has no means by which to obtain food, and this coin is the only money he has. Stealing this coin will result in his death. Evidently, Tosafot had a slightly different text of the Talmud that does not read “anyone who robs,” as Maimonides quotes it. According to Tosafot, it does not apply to “anyone,” only someone who robs a person who is extremely poor.

This does not help explain Maimonides’ statement that includes any act of robbery—regardless of whether the victim is rich or poor.

Moreover, it is clear from Tosafot that he applies this comparison not only to robbery, but also to other acts of unethically relieving a person of his possessions. In Tosafot’s view, obtaining benefit from another person through theft or cheating is equally compared to murder if the victim is now deprived of the ability to sustain himself.

By contrast, Maimonides limits his ruling to someone who is robbed (having one’s possessions seized from one’s person), excluding other immoral acts of acquisition. This compounds the difficulty: why is robbery compared to murder, while similar acts of theft are not?

To resolve this, the Rebbe points to the continuation of the ruling by Maimonides, which also leaves us incredulous:

Nevertheless (despite the severity of the robbery that it is compared to murder), if the item robbed is no longer in existence, and the robber wishes to repent and comes of his own accord and returns the value of the ill-begotten item, the sages instituted a rule that we do not accept the money from him (but allow him to keep it). Rather, we help him and forgive him the money he owes so as to make the path of repentance as accessible as possible. The sages made clear their displeasure of anyone who accepts money from a penitent.

Is this not astonishing? Here we are told that robbing money is akin to slaying someone, only to be informed that if the aggressor has remorse we go to the other extreme and let him off the hook completely?

This must mean, the Rebbe explains, that by choosing to return what he stole, he corrects whatever wrong he had previously caused. How so? The Rebbe offers a perceptive psychological insight. Robbery refers to someone attacking another person and forcibly seizing his or her possessions. It is an act of violence and aggression that violates the victim. The money stolen is secondary; the bigger issue is that the victim’s dignity has been desecrated. This leaves a deep trauma that can hurt long after the financial impact has been forgotten.

In recent decades we have come to properly understand the impact of crime on the victim. We now know how being attacked can leave the victim feeling helpless and vulnerable. Victims of such crimes are known to experience grief, despair, mistrust and anxiety, often for many years. The amount of which one is robbed has no bearing on the traumatic effect. Hence, Maimonides rules that even if the robber stole only a small amount, the offense is equally terrible.

Now we understand how this kind of attack can be compared to murder. Of course, it is not murder, and not in any way as severe. But the psychological harm it can cause is sufficiently acute that it is in some sense like “taking the person’s life.”

Victims of violent crime often report that they feel the attack “ruined their life” or “stole their peace of mind.” When people ask the victims, “What was taken from you?” they are often told, “It is not the amount that was stolen, but the emotional impact it had on me. I used to be a relaxed, trusting person; now I am anxious and fearful.” This is the real consequence of violent crime. It ruins lives.

Now, what if the attacker realizes the error of his ways and decides to face the victim and admit his wrongdoing? This is known as “restorative justice.” We know that this can have an incredibly positive impact on the victim.

To have his humanity and dignity affirmed by the very person who attacked him is indeed “restorative.” It helps the victim heal emotionally. It facilitates psychological healing by restoring trust and reaffirming the integrity of his being.

Thus, Maimonides says, if the robber were to be willing, without any coercion, to step forward to repair the damage he has done, this indeed would restore life to the victim. Of course, it is not the money that will do so, but the willingness of the aggressor to openly take responsibility for his actions.

It is an ironic fact that no person on the planet can do more to help the victim overcome the trauma of his attack than the attacker himself. When the robber apologizes to the victim, the worst of the damage has been repaired.

Thus, in such an instance we do not go after the robber to make him pay for his crime. There is no point going after the former criminal, when he is in the midst of doing the one act that no one else can do, namely, offering a profound and sincere apology.

Adapted from Likkutei Sichot vol. 32, Kedoshim I (pg. 112-119)