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Appreciating the Effort

Mishpatim (Exodus 21-24 )

by Rabbi Ozer Alport

Upon discovering that an animal in his flock or herd has been killed by wild animals, the Torah (Exodus 22:30) specifically requires the owner to give the carcass to the dogs, a connection which doesn't seem to be readily apparent. The Daas Z'keinim explains that most farmers and shepherds employ guard dogs to protect their animals against predators. Presumably, when the wolf stealthily came to attack in the middle of the night, the dog detected its presence and fought valiantly, albeit unsuccessfully, to ward it off. For this effort, as well as for its successful guarding of all of the other animals until now, the Torah requires the owner to show gratitude to the dog by presenting it with the dead animal's remains.

In doing so, the Torah is teaching us the fallacy a common English expression. If a person gives of his precious time and energy in an earnest attempt to help somebody out, only to have his efforts fail, the average American will tell him, "Thanks, but no thanks." This expression indicates that he is owed no debt of gratitude for his efforts and not-so-subtly suggests that the next time he should just mind his own business. In contrast, the Torah teaches that because the dog was willing to help, and tried to be of assistance in doing its best to protect the animals, its owner is obligated to show appreciation for its good-faith efforts and reward it with the carcass.

So many times a relative, friend or co-worker will volunteer to try to help us out. Unfortunately, these efforts don't always lead to the results we were hoping for. The next time it happens, instead of rubbing in the failure to somebody who already feels badly enough, let us remember the lesson of the guard dogs and express our sincere appreciation for their time and good intentions.

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A common criticism of yeshiva students is that they spend their days engrossed in the study of archaic and irrelevant laws such as the intricate minutiae of goring cows (21:28-29). In reality, the Torah is God's blueprint for creating the world, and the answer to every question and problem may be found therein, as evidenced by the following amazing story.

A panic-stricken woman once approached the Rogatchover Gaon, explaining that several weeks had passed during which her newborn baby nursed properly during the week but absolutely refused to nurse on Shabbos, thereby endangering his health. The Rogatchover nonchalantly suggested that on the following Shabbos, the woman should wear her weekday apparel rather than her Shabbos clothes.

Bizarre as his suggestion seemed, she followed his advice with blind faith and was amazed to discover that by donning her regular clothes the problem went away, just as the Rogatchover had predicted. To her incredulous inquires about the source of his supernatural knowledge and abilities, he casually explained that the answer to her dilemma was "explicit" in the Talmud.

The Torah differentiates between the laws governing an ox that gores only periodically ("tam") and one which is confirmed to gore habitually ("mu'ad"). The Mishnah (Bava Kamma 4:2) rules that an animal which has gored repeatedly - but only on Shabbos - is considered to be habitual with respect to its actions on Shabbos but only "periodic" regarding damages it may cause during the week. The Talmud (Yerushalmi 19b) explains that the ox gets confused on Shabbos when it sees people wearing nice clothes to which it isn't accustomed, causing it to attack and act wildly, but during the week it recognizes its surroundings and behaves normally.

Based on this, the Rogatchover deduced that the woman's nursing difficulties stemmed from the fact that her baby didn't recognize her in her Shabbos finery, and a minor wardrobe change indeed resolved the problem - archaic indeed!

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If a person lights a fire and it causes damage, he is liable to pay for the loss that it caused (22:5). If a fire burns down a house on which the owner has an insurance policy, is the person who lit the fire still responsible to pay for the damages?

The Sages present three valid approaches to this question:

The Ohr Someyach (Sechirus 7:1) and Maharsham (4:7) maintain that the fact that the homeowner has an insurance policy does not in any way eliminate the obligation of the person who lit the fire to reimburse him for the damage that his fire caused, and if the homeowner ends up making money by being compensated both by the damager and by the insurance company, this is his right due to the business arrangement that he made with the insurance company.

Based on a ruling of Maimonides, Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman (Kovetz Shiurim Kesuvos 217) writes that the person who lit the fire is obligated to pay for the damage caused by his fire. However, the money goes not to the homeowner, but to the insurance company to reimburse them for the money that they are required to pay to the homeowner in fulfillment of his insurance policy.

Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman (Ayeles HaShachar Vayikra 24:21) argues that it is illogical for the homeowner to profit by being compensated for his loss twice. Since the insurance company is already paying the homeowner, the person who lit the fire is exempt from doing so. He is also not liable to pay the insurance company, as the damage that he caused them is considered indirect - and according to Torah law a person is only required to pay for direct damage that he causes.

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