Shabbat Parashat Mishpatim| 5767
How Bad is It?
In a couple of places in our parasha, the Torah seems to subscribe to a very harsh punishment, only for Chazal to teach us that the Torah did not mean to carry out the punishment as it appears. “An eye for an eye” really means money for an eye. The Torah also talks about an ox that killed and, despite being warned, the owner failed to watch the ox, which ended up killing again. The Torah says that not only should the ox be killed, but also its owner yumat (shall die) (Shemot 21:29). Chazal teach that it does not mean that beit din executes the grossly negligent owner but that he is liable to die in a premature, Divinely ordained manner.
The question begs: what is the point of writing the matter in a way that sounds like he should be executed if we are not to do so? Rabbeinu Chananel (to Bava Kamma 27a) says that the Torah is telling us that the owner who did not curb his murderous ox really deserves death. However, the Torah spared him and gave him a lesser sentence and a means of making some amends through a special, atoning monetary payment.
Yet, one can still ask why this is the only case where one who indirectly caused death is worthy of death. Why do we not find this idea regarding one who digs a pit, is warned to cover it, and refuses to do so or one who lights a fire, is warned to extinguish it, and continues? They make full damage payments like the owner of a dangerous ox, so why should they not be fit to die for their criminal negligence?
The key to the special nature of the owner of the murderous ox may be the Torah’s description, “lo yishmerenu” (he will not watch it). The Torah doesn’t say he didn’t watch it, in the past tense. It may be hinting that some people act in a way that shows that they have no intention to ever watch the ox. When a person lights a fire, he realizes that if it damages or kills, it is, to a great extent, he who did it. The same is true of a ditch he dug in the public domain. It is unlikely that his negligence is a philosophy. In contrast, the owner of the ox can point fingers: “It’s not me. The ox did it. That, after all, is the reason that the Torah says to kill the ox.” One who shifts responsibility to another, claiming that he is responsible only for things he does himself possesses a sick yet all too human philosophy. It is dangerous to leave the standard rules of culpability. The Torah confronts him with the phrase “yumat.”
From a halachic perspective, the scenario is limited to animal owners. However, the lesson of fighting the tendency to shift blame for endangering people away from oneself is important. When a driver speeds or tailgates, his reaction to one who dares confront him may be that he is too good a driver for anything to happen. If, Heaven forbid, something does happen, he can reassure himself that someone else was at fault for stopping abruptly or building poor roads. The Torah teaches us that failing to minimize risks to others is tantamount, on some levels, to murder itself.
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This edition of Hemdat Yamim is dedicated to the memory of