June 13, 2017
Rabbi H. Greenberg in #1072, Parsha Thought, Prison, Shlach


The Torah records the story of a certain, nameless, individual who violated Shabbos. Moshe did not know what his punishment should be, so they put him in prison until they could determine what punishment would be appropriate.

There is a cryptic Midrash that draws the following analogy from this episode:

“From here we can derive the Biblical obligation to search for Chametz.”

The Midrash refers to our obligation to search for Chametz (any mixture of flour and water allowed to rise) in our possession on the night before Passover.

This Midrash belongs to the genre of “Midrash Peliah;” Midrashic materials that were written deliberately in the form of riddles, presumably to inspire greater interest in understanding the Torah and fathoming its deeper meaning.

In addition to Midrash’s ability to enhance our Torah study, Midrash also deals with the underlying layer of Torah knowledge. Also, many secrets of the Torah are embedded in its teachings.

We must therefore try to fathom or decipher the riddle of the seemingly arbitrary connection between the Sabbath violator’s prison sentence and the obligation to search for Chametz.

We must also try to understand:

a) the connection of both prison and Chametz to Shabbos, inasmuch as these two themes are introduced in the narrative of one who failed to keep Shabbos;

b) the deeper message embedded within this text; and

c) how we can apply it to our own lives, particularly with respect to our preparation for the final Redemption.


On the surface, one could explain the Midrash’s cryptic comparison by questioning the entire premise of imprisonment of a Sabbath violator.

When we survey the punishments recorded in the Torah for a variety of crimes we do not find imprisonment among them. There are fines, corporal punishment and in extreme cases capital punishment, but not prison. Why?

The Rebbe explained that prison is not a suitable punishment because it deprives the person of his or her ability to function as a full-fledged human being. The prisoner cannot express and actualize his or her full potential. A human being was sent into this world to achieve important things.

Even the death penalty is preferable to incarceration in the most extreme cases because once the person is no longer alive he or she has no further need to grow spiritually; his or her life’s mission has ended.

However, to keep a person alive, still with a mission in life and the ability to fulfill it, but then imprison him or her and deny that opportunity, is a form of cruel and unusual punishment from the perspective of Torah.

To be sure, the Rebbe does not advocate opening the prisons and letting all the dangerous criminals out. Rather, he urged society to find more humane and rehabilitative ways of dealing with a transgressor. Prison should only be used as a last resort to protect society from an incorrigible and violent criminal. Stifling human creativity and achievement is itself a terrible crime. From the Torah’s perspective, the goal of punishment is not vengeance; it is our tool for rehabilitating the criminal by helping him or her grow morally and spiritually. Anything we do to stifle that process harms society as well as the criminal.

Accordingly, it is hard to understand why the Torah states that they imprisoned the person who violated Shabbos. If prison is so objectionable, why would it be tolerated for even a short period of time?


The obvious answer is that a distinction must be made between imprisonment as a punishment and imprisonment as a way of guaranteeing that the accused will not escape punishment.

Hence, we derive from this that although the act of incarceration did not possess any intrinsic value as an appropriate punishment, it nevertheless was done to ensure the proper punishment in the future.

We can now understand the Midrash’s statement that we derive a Biblical obligation to search for the Chametz from this episode.

Chametz is Biblically prohibited to us during the Festival of Passover. We may not eat or derive benefit from it. We may not even possess it. How do we guarantee that we will not possess Chametz during Passover? After all, even if we think our property is Chametz-free isn’t it possible that there still might be Chametz that has eluded us?

Therefore, to ensure that we do not violate the law against possession of Chametz during the prohibited period we search for it on the night before Passover. There is no intrinsic value in the search for Chametz, because if we search for it and find it but fail to destroy it or remove it from our ownership before the prohibited period, the search will have been in vain.

This is very similar to the incarceration of the Sabbath violator, whereby it was not an intrinsically valuable act. On the contrary, it flies in the face of the Torah’s abhorrence of the use of imprisonment and deprivation of freedom. The same is true with regard to Chametz. Searching for it is not intrinsically a worthwhile act; it does however serve the ultimate goal of ensuring that we will ultimately be rid of all our Chametz.


There is a deeper parallel between prison and Chametz.

The Talmud (Sukkah 52b) states that there are four things G-d “regrets” having created. One of them is exile and the other is the Yetzer Hara, the evil inclination.

Obviously, when G-d is said to regret something we should not take it literally. Rather, as the Rebbe mentioned, we should interpret G-d’s regret as His way of fulfilling the Mitzvah of Teshuva, repentance. The Midrash states that G-d keeps all of the commandments that He gave us. It follows that He must also observe the Mitzvah to repent. How does he fulfill this commandment? He gives us the potential to reverse the process of Galus and of evil. G-d’s regret is the power he invests in us to undo the Galus and to rid ourselves of the Yetzer Hara.


The metaphor for Galus is prison, which inhibits our ability to serve G-d in the fullest measure. In Galus we are unable to observe most of the 613 commandments because we don’t have the Beis HaMikdash as well as other conditions needed for their fulfillment. The pressures of exile, the persecution we have suffered, etc., also stifle our ability to perform the Mitzvos and study Torah with complete peace of mind.

The metaphor for the evil inclination, our Sages tell us, is Chametz, the mixture of flour and water that has been allowed to rise. Chametz thus also represents the inflated ego which, if left unchecked, can cause us to go astray.

Thus, the Midrash says, prison, although it is temporary, is the equivalent as the search for Chametz. Both prison, the metaphor for Galus, and Chametz, the metaphor for our evil impulse, are regrettable. We would be a lot happier if we never experienced Galus and we didn’t need to search for Chametz-evil to destroy it.

However, G-d created these two entities, so they must provide us with some benefit we couldn’t obtain without them. What are those benefits?

The benefit of Chametz is that when we perform Teshuva with love we have more than the capacity to erase the past; we can actually transform past negativity into positive energy, as the Talmud states.

Thus, it is a good idea to search for the Chametz. If we presumed that our house was Chametz-free but failed to look for it, we would lose the opportunity to transform the negative into a Mitzvah. By first searching, discovering and then burning the Chametz, we have actually turned the negative into a powerful positive.

The same is true with respect to Galus. While it would have been much more pleasant to have avoided Galus, nevertheless, once we lived in and through Galus, it provided us with a benefit that we could never have had without it.

Chassidus teaches us that Galus, while negative in the way it manifests itself, actually derives from a lofty and elusive G-dly source. In addition, the fact that we lived through Galus with great Mesiras Nefesh (self-sacrifice) to maintain our Jewish life has enriched us immeasurably.

In the Final Redemption we will begin to appreciate the loftiness achieved from the past exile and be able to enjoy the fruit of our labor.


There are few places in the Torah where prison is mentioned. The fact that it is mentioned in conjunction with the person who violated Shabbos suggests that there is a thematic connection between prison and Shabbos violation.

Shabbos is a foretaste of Redemption, a period of total peace, tranquility and holiness.

Our Sages alluded to this when they taught that if the Jewish people would observe even one Shabbos they would be redeemed. The collective power of serenity and holiness would be so powerful that it would break down the confining walls and stifling atmosphere of Galus.

When a Jew in the desert violated Shabbos so soon after G-d gave us this incredible gift of a foretaste of the future, it was a major setback. He brought Galus-prison into the otherwise ideal spiritual atmosphere that the Jewish people enjoyed in the desert. His confinement in prison was not a punishment; it was emblematic of what he had done. It was regrettable that he should have to be confined with his ability to actualize his potential aborted. However, that is the exact thing one causes when one does not observe the Shabbos; it brings a Galus environment into an otherwise blissful, futuristic world. Galus, we see, is the antithesis of Shabbos.

The lesson we must derive from this is that Shabbos empowers us to live in the future now, which will therefore hasten the arrival of a “perpetual Shabbos.”

Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (
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