Mishpatim — Exodus 21:1-24:18
When my parents, zihronam l’vracha, provided me with a yeshiva day school education in the 1940s, it was not an obvious choice. But my mother wanted to teach me “responsibility” and believed I would learn it best in a Jewish school.
I cannot recall any lessons specifically devoted to “responsibility.” The Hebrew and religious curriculum certainly was interesting and exciting, but in the early grades, the concept of responsibility never came up, at least not explicitly.
In the school I attended, Talmud study was introduced in fifth or sixth grade with passages from tractates Bava Kama and Bava Metzia, passages almost exclusively based upon verses in Mishpatim. And the single dominant theme of this portion is responsibility.
I remember the teacher admonishing us, “A person is responsible for all his actions, deliberate or unintentional, purposeful or accidental, awake or asleep.” It was a direct quote from the Talmud, but he emphatically conveyed to us that it was also a formula for life.
It is, furthermore, a lesson derived from Mishpatim. Read it, and you will learn that we all are not only responsible for our own actions, but also for the actions of the animals we own. We are responsible for damage caused by our possessions if we leave them in a place where someone might trip over them and be injured. We are responsible not only to compensate those whom we have harmed for the damages they suffered, but to compensate them for lost employment or for the health-care costs that were incurred by whatever harm we caused them.
What a revelation! How many 10-year-olds in other educational settings were exposed to these high ethical standards? Certainly not the boys whose parents had not opted for a day school education for them.
Even today, many criticize the curriculum of the type of education I experienced. They point to the many verses in this week’s portion that speak of one ox goring another and question the contemporary relevance of such arcane legalities.
But when I studied about my responsibility for my oxen and the consequences that applied if my ox gored you, or your slave, or your ox, I was living in Brooklyn, where I had seen neither oxen nor slaves. But I do not recall I or my classmates being troubled by that.
Rather, we internalized the underlying principles of those passages. We got the message: Each of us is responsible for the well-being of the other, be he a free man or the slave of old. We are not only to avoid harming another, but we are to take care that our possessions — farm animals, pets, or mislaid baseball bats — do not endanger those around us.
We learned so much more about responsibility from those Talmud passages. For example, that a priest guilty of a crime was to be held responsible and brought to justice, even if that meant “taking him down from the sacrificial altar.” No sacrificial altars in Brooklyn, then or now. But plenty of people in leadership positions try to use their status to avoid responsibility for their actions.
We learned it was perfectly permissible to borrow objects from our friends and neighbors, but that we were totally responsible to care for those objects. If those objects were somehow damaged — even if that damage was not due to our negligence — we had to compensate the object’s owner. We learned to borrow responsibly as well as the importance of lending our possessions to others, especially those less fortunate than ourselves.
We learned that we were responsible to help others, and that that obligation extended even to strangers; indeed, even all the more to strangers.
And we learned to be responsible for our very words, and to distance ourselves from lies and falsehoods.
How valuable our Torah is as a guide to a truly ethical life! What an opportunity we all have to awaken ourselves to these vital ethical teachings by attentively listening to this week’s Torah portion!