I lived in New York City at a time of increasing crime rates. In came new mayor, Ed Koch, and a zero tolerance policy for any crime was introduced. Simple acts of vandalism and incivility were now to be enforced by the police. Anyone caught breaking windows, spraying graffiti, spitting in public, and littering were now subject to punishment. Remarkable, as minor crimes were enforced, the crime rates for major crimes declined. One explanation for this phenomenon is embedded in a medieval commentary on the Torah.
There are few mitzvot in the Torah that regulate thought. (Those that come to mind are the commands to love God, refrain from coveting, and bearing a grudge.) And the reason is obvious. Actions can be observed and evaluated; thoughts cannot. Therefore, the Rabbis considered thoughts qualitatively different from actions. For the Rabbis, mitzvot connected with thought are “lighter” than mitzvot connected with actions. An example of the application of this distinctive vocabulary appears in the commentary of the classical commentator RaShI on Deuteronomy 19:11.
The Torah assigns the penalty for attacking and killing a hated enemy by ambush as death at the hands of the blood avenger. RaShI succinctly explains how enmity led to murder: “On account of his hatred he came to ambush him.” His vile thoughts impelled his loathsome action. “From this,” RaShI goes on to write, “the Rabbis said that the violation of a “light” commandment (i.e., hate for another Jew) ultimately leads to the violation of a severe commandment (i.e., murder).”
Some clarification is in order. RaShI is not saying that hatred for another Jew (forbidden by the Torah, Lev. 19:17) is a trivial matter. It is quite the contrary. RaShI points out that hatred is the precursor to murder. Broadly speaking, thinking leads to doing. Accordingly, hatred is a “light” sin only in the sense that it involves no action of its own. Its seriousness lies in the fact that it ineluctably leads to the commission of a grievous, wrongful action.
Extrapolating from this case, we could say that any sin, no matter how small, is excusable on the grounds of its insignificance. Tolerance for minor infractions can only lead to the acceptance of major crimes. Alternatively, holding people accountable for small trespasses goes a long way in reducing major crimes.