The Talmud Bava Kamma 79b distinguishes between a ganav, thief – who steals surreptitiously – and a gazlan, robber, who fears no man and steals publicly. The ganav pays keifal, a fine of double the value of the principal, and arbaah v’chamisha, four and five times the principal depending on whether is a sheep or an ox, in the event that he sells or slaughters the animal. The students asked Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai why the Torah is more stringent concerning the ganav than it is toward the gazlan. Rabban Yochanan replied that he (the gazlan) has equalized the respect he gives to his Master to that which he gives to His servant. The analogy is: The robber fears no one, neither G-d nor man. He steals publicly, demonstrating his disdain for all The ganav, in contrast, is careful to make sure that people do not see his act of thievery. Apparently, he does not care that Hashem sees what he is doing. He is only concerned with what people think of him. Regrettably, this is the moral posture that seems to prevail in the minds and actions of many members of contemporary society.
In his commentary to the Torah, Parashas Ki Seitzei, the Brisker Rav, zl, questions this explanation. On the contrary, the gazlan has descended to a more reprehensible nadir in that he manifests greater contempt for authority He shows that he does not even fear human beings. He has such chutzpah that nothing and no one seem to impress him. Such a person is out of control, beyond discipline. Yet, the Torah seems to treat him with greater respectability than the ganav, whose fraudulent pursuits remain hidden.
The Brisker Rav explains that the very mahus, essential make-up of the gazlan, is that he does not make cheshbonos, think through, contemplate, what he is doing. He does exactly what he wants to do – when he want to do it, and he does not care about anyone or anybody. The gazlan is not a cerebral person. He acts on impulse, passion, desire. The ganav, however, is quite deliberate in his actions. He ponders a situation, mulls over the danger of getting caught, considers the ramifications, and, after much cogitation, reaches a decision. He is a thinking man. He is, thus, condemned for not “including” Hashem in the equation. Why does he not take into consideration that Hashem sees all and will punish him for his nefarious deed? The answer is, he does not care. He lacks yiraas Shomayim, fear of Hashem. The ganav’s act of corruption reflects a lack of yiraas Shomayim. The gazlan, on the other hand, just demonstrates thoughtlessness.
The Brisker Rav applies this concept towards explaining the idea behind the mitzvah of mechiyas Amalek, erasing the name of Amalek. The Torah (Devarim 25:18) attributes the idea due to asher kamcha ba’derech, va’yizarev becha kol ha’nechashalim acharecha v’atah ayeif v’yagea, v’lo yarei Elokim; “(Amalek) that he happened upon you on the way, and he struck those of you who were hindmost when you were faint and exhausted and did not fear G-d.” Rashi comments: “Amalek did not fear G-d, he was not afraid to wage war against the Jewish People.” What relationship exists between Amalek’s lack of fear of Hashem and the fact that the Jewish People were “faint and exhausted”? Furthermore, Amalek was not the only nation that waged war against us, yet, no other nation is so condemned as Amalek; no other nation is so anathematized, so accursed as is Amalek. Why?
Amalek indicated by his very tactics that he feared people, but he did not fear Hashem. Had he made a frontal attack, as did other nations who were our enemies, it would have demonstrated that he had no fear of G-d or humans. He defied them both. The mere fact that Amalek thought out his battle plan, and attacked the hindmost flank at a time when the people were faint and exhausted, showed that he feared human repercussion, but cared less about Heavenly reaction. His strategy was well-planned, factoring all of the Jewish “army’s” strengths and weaknesses. Hashem, however, was not a factor in his plans, because Amalek did not fear Hashem. One who does not fear Hashem is punished with his name being eternally obliterated.
Horav Mordechai Weinberg, zl, adds that yiraas Shomayim is a factor, not only as a deterrent from evil, but it is also a stimulus that galvanizes one to be proactive in mitzvah performance. He quotes Rabbeinu Yonah in his Shaarei Teshuvah 3:12, who says that the performance of the mitzvos asei, positive mitzvos, are as much dependent upon yiraas Shomayim as refraining from falling into the abyss of performing prohibitive mitzvos. Indeed, one who is not actively engaged in asei tov, doing good, has rejected fear of Heaven.
The Rosh Yeshivah applies this idea to explain Rabbi Yochanan’s blessing to his five students, who were themselves erudite, pious Torah leaders. When his students asked him to bless them as he lay on his deathbed (Talmud Berachos 28b), he replied, “May it be the will (of Hashem) that the fear of Heaven should be on you (as great) as the fear of flesh and blood.” The question is obvious: Is this the kind of blessing that is appropriate for men of such high caliber? These were righteous individuals, each one a Torah giant in his own right. Surely, they each must have warranted a blessing more suitable to his spiritual plateau. Basically, the gist of the blessing was: You should have more yiraas Shomayim than the average ganav! It almost seems unreal.