Stealing the Mind

Yael Eckstein  |  July 22, 2022

Jewish woman crying tears of relief after being rescued from anti-Semitism

Like a maniac shooting
    flaming arrows of death
is one who deceives their neighbor
    and says, “I was only joking!”
— Proverbs 26:18-19

We continue with devotional thoughts from the Book of Proverbs every Friday. One of the 11 books in the Torah known as the Ketuvim, Hebrew for “writings,” Proverbs is part of the “wisdom tradition,” which also includes Job and Ecclesiastes.

Have you ever been tricked or deceived? It’s a terrible feeling when you find out that you have been taken advantage of. Thousands of years ago, the Jewish sages coined a term for deception, a term that teaches us what it really means to be deceived. The term is genayvat da’at, which translates to “theft of the mind.”

Think about that. When a person is deceived, their understanding of what is happening is incorrect. They have been led to believe one thing, while the reality is something else. They have literally had their “mind” — their perception of the reality of the situation — stolen from them and replaced with a false perception of what is going on.

Stealing the Mind

By referring to deception as stealing the mind, the rabbis teach that even if the deceiver has not physically stolen anything, a crime has happened. One who has been deceived realizes that they were vulnerable to the person who deceived them, that they could have been taken advantage of them in any number of ways.

Proverbs teaches us this same lesson. We read, “Like a maniac shooting flaming arrows of death is one who deceives their neighbor and says, ‘I was only joking!’” The Hebrew literally says, “flames, arrows, and death,” as though these are three separate tools of attack.

Rabbi Meir Malbim, a great European rabbi from the 19th century, explains that the verse is teaching us that once a person is deceived, there is no limit to what a deceiver can do to them. Flames burn the clothing or skin. Arrows penetrate the skin into the body. And death, of course, is the worst of the three.

When it comes to stealing the mind, the effects of deception are long-lasting and damaging beyond the words spoken. One who has been deceived is completely vulnerable. Once they realize that they have been manipulated, they were susceptible to any number of attacks.

But the deceiver always retains the ability to stop at any point and walk away claiming they have done nothing wrong — “I was only joking.” But the damage is done. The person who was deceived feels hurt and shaken. For this reason, Jewish ethical law forbids the practice of “practical jokes.” Because even when done for fun, emotional scars can remain.

Your Turn:

Be careful not to participate in jokes that come at someone else’s expense. Let’s build people up, not make them feel more vulnerable.