Taking responsibility for our actions
Mishpatim | Exodus 21:1-24:18
Last week, the radio news reported that an elderly woman was killed, and her son injured, by a dog she had recently adopted. She had been planning to return the dog to the ASPCA because it was overly aggressive.
As it happens, parashat Mishpatim deals with the matter of animals that injure people. The Torah says:
When an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall be stoned and its flesh shall not be eaten, but the owner of the ox is not to be punished. If, however, that ox has been in the habit of goring, and its owner, though warned, has failed to guard it and it kills a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned and its owner, too, shall be put to death.
The Rabbis understand that the death meted out to the owner is to be accomplished “at the hands of heaven” rather than by execution because he did not act deliberately, but he is to be heavily fined.
What this means is that any domestic animal (not just an ox) is normally considered “tam,” harmless, because such animals rarely attack people. Therefore, if an animal suddenly goes berserk and kills or injures someone, the owner is not liable because he could not have foreseen such behavior.
However, once an ox has gored (or other animals have attacked) on three occasions and the owner has been warned, the animal becomes a “mu’ad,” a warned one, and the owner is liable for any subsequent injury.
This seems eminently reasonable. Most dogs never hurt anyone, but once an owner knows that his dog has a tendency to bite — or worse — he has a specific responsibility to prevent that animal from causing injury.
These, and other cases of negligence, are discussed in the Talmudic tractate Bava Kamma, which adds an interesting point. The Talmud teaches:
A human being is always considered “mu’ad” — dangerous — whether he causes injury accidentally or deliberately, whether he is awake or asleep. If he blinds the eye of another person or breaks his vessels [i.e., whether he injures a person or property], he must pay full damages.
Animals are not moral creatures; an animal that kills a human being is destroyed — in fact, it is publicly stoned — not only because it is dangerous, but also because of the value we place on human life. However, it is not held morally responsible for what it has done.
Human beings are moral creatures. This is what is meant when we say that human beings are created in the image of God — that we are capable of knowing right and wrong and choosing between them. Human beings can control their behavior, even though some people choose not to.
This is exactly why our parasha talks about murder, negligence, theft, and the responsibilities of those who care for others’ property. Because we are human, we are responsible: for how we treat others, for avoiding foreseeable damage to people or property, and for being careful and prudent all the time.
This certainly isn’t the popular position. We live in an age where almost everyone’s first response when things go wrong is, “It’s not my fault.” But if we refuse to be responsible for our actions, we give up a little of our humanity and, as it were, take on the characteristics of animals.
The Torah says, “You shall be holy people to Me.” The Kotzker Rebbe said this comes to tells us: “Be holy in a human way, be holy while dealing with the temptations of normal people. God already has enough angels.”
Rabbi Joyce Newmark, a resident of Teaneck, is a former religious leader of congregations in Leonia and Lancaster, Pa.