Paying for Damages
Mishpatim (Exodus 21-24 )
Everyone knows that "fair is fair." The only problem is figuring out just what fair is. Wouldn't it be great if we knew what God thought was fair?
Well, we do. It's called the Torah. This week's portion is packed with all sorts of guidelines how to deal with conflicts and damages in the fairest, most just way possible. When we learn and live by the Torah's guideline, we create an environment that will keep people at peace with each other.
In our story we learn how the Torah's wisdom helps some brothers work out their differences - fairly.
I was sitting at my desk at home, deep in my studies. At my Hebrew Day School we were learning all about fairness and how to treat each other's property. It was fascinating stuff and I was really into it. Then suddenly I jumped at the sound of a loud crash and lots of shouting. It sounded like World War III had started up in the next room. How in the world was I supposed to do my homework in the middle of all this noise? I tried to ignore the racket and put my head back in the books, but it was no use.
"Hey guys, can you please keep it down?" I shouted as I pushed open the door to the room of my younger twin brothers. But the scene that met my eyes made me stop in my tracks.
Sammy was standing on a chair, holding a Casio keyboard threateningly over his head like King Kong on the Empire State Building, with Dave, face red as a beet, jumping up and down in the middle of a pile of batteries and wires trying to snatch the keyboard from him. Neither of them paid me the least drop of attention.
"What in the world is going on?!" I yelled.
Finally, Sammy looked my way. "I'm going to smash this thing to smithereens - that's what!"
"Don't you dare!" screamed Dave hysterically, as he took another swipe at his twin's arm.
The two of them were always pretty rough and tumble, but this looked serious. "Whoa! Wait a minute. Can you guys declare a two-minute cease-fire and tell me what's happening?"
They looked at each other. "Let's let Josh decide, okay?" said Dave, as his twin nodded in agreement.
They explained to me how Dave had borrowed Sammy's game-boy, and while his brother was outside playing, Dave had dropped it on the floor, where it turned into the electronic pile of spaghetti that now lay at my feet. Sammy figured it was only fair that he should be allowed to 'return the favor' and smash his brother's keyboard. They were both very angry and I realized I had about ten seconds to come up with something brilliant before the truce broke down. But what could I say? How in the world was I supposed to know what's fair?
Suddenly it dawned on me. This was exactly the kind of thing I was learning about in Day School! Maybe I didn't know what was fair, but the Torah did. I tried hard to remember, what did it say ... yeah, that was it!
"Guys, the Torah has just the fair solution."
"I'm allowed to smash it, right?" said Sammy.
"Oh, so it's not my fault then!" declared Dave with a smile.
"Well, not quite that either."
"So then what?" they both shouted at the same time.
"Well the Torah says that if someone borrows from somebody else and the thing breaks, he has to make restitution."
"Resti-what?" asked Dave.
I laughed. "It means he has to pay for the damage. The other guy can't take revenge by breaking his thing, but neither can the first guy just walk away scot-free. Well, what do you say, guys?"
The room was quiet, and I held my breath. Finally 'King Kong' climbed slowly down off the chair. "Sounds fair to me - if he's willing to pay for me to get another game-boy. Smashing his keyboard won't get me anywhere."
We looked over at Dave. "Yeah, I guess it's only fair, I did break his thing. I was saving up my allowance to get a scooter, but I'll have to wait, that's all."
They shook hands and once again peace reigned at 25 Meadow Drive. "I'd better go back to my studies to make sure I know the answer to the next pickle you guys get yourelves into!"
Q. How did Sammy feel at first when his twin brother broke his game?
A. He felt like it would be fair for him to take revenge and smash his brother's keyboard.
Q. How did he feel after they spoke to their big brother?
A. He saw how the Torah's solution that his brother told them was much fairer for everyone.
Q. Why do you think the twins agreed to Josh's solution?
A. More than anything, because it was fair. Even though someone might want to have everything 'his way,' when presented with a solution that is genuinely fair, he'll feel satisfied.
Q. Do you think that human beings could ever devise a perfectly just and fair way of living?
A. Even the most wise and fair-minded people are limited. Despite their best intentions, any system they devise will be somehow lacking. The Torah system of living, which was given to us by God, is different. Each of its guidelines possesses an unearthly and unlimited wisdom that if properly followed, can transform people's lives, and society for the better.
Ages 10 and Up
Q. The Torah is full of very detailed codes of conduct. Why do you think an infinite God would be so concerned with such seemingly unspiritual petty details as property laws?
A. The answer to that depends upon how we define spirituality. The Jewish spiritual ideal is to neither overly indulge in, nor abstain from the physical world and all of its activities. Rather, our goal is to perfect the physical world by being involved in it, but in a moderate and just way. God's 'concern' is to provide us, via the Torah, with detailed guidance in all of life's situations, so that we can best elevate them, and by doing so, perfect the world, and ourselves.
Q. How can we know whether we are properly interpreting the guidelines that God has given us?
A. When God gave us the Torah, He provided us with not only the Written Torah, which outlines the general guidelines for spiritual living, but also a much lengthier and more detailed Oral Torah, which explains and applies these guidelines to every conceivable life situation. This oral tradition has remained with us in an unbroken chain for thousands of years, and has been carefully scrutinized, clarified and transmitted by the greatest thinkers and spiritual giants throughout the ages. By attaching ourselves to that chain, we take possession of a priceless gift and powerful tool of transformation.