By Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb
I have to thank my dear parents, may they rest in peace, for many things. I must especially thank them for having chosen to provide me with a yeshiva day school education. This was not an obvious choice back in the 1940’s, for few parents chose the day school option. But I remember my mother insisting that she wanted to teach me “responsibility,” and her belief was that I would learn it best in a Jewish school.
In the school I attended, Talmud study began in the fifth or sixth grade. It was then that I first heard the word “responsibility” in the classroom and began to learn what it really meant. We were introduced to Talmud study with selected passages in the tractates Bava Kama and Bava Metzia. The passages we studied were almost exclusively based upon verses found in this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim. And the single dominant theme of this week’s portion is unarguably responsibility.
I look back on my first exposure to Talmud, and to this week’s Torah portion as studied through its lenses, and remember the teacher admonishing us, “A person is responsible for all of 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 a lesson derived from Parshat 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 harmed. We are responsible not only to compensate those whom we have harmed for the damages they suffered, but also for lost employment or for the health care costs that were incurred by whatever harm we caused them.
What a revelation to a 10-year old boy! How many 10-year olds in other educational settings were exposed to these high ethical standards? Yet, even today, many criticize the curriculum of the type of education that 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 certainly seen neither oxen nor slaves. But I was not troubled by that, nor were my classmates. Rather, we easily internalized the underlying principles of those passages. We understood that all the laws of oxen were relevant even for we Brooklyn Dodger fans. We got the message: Each of us is responsible for the well-being of the other. We are not only to take care that we avoid harming another, but we are to take care that our possessions, be they farm animals, pets, or mislaid baseball bats, do not endanger those around us.
There was so much more that we learned about responsibility from those Talmud passages. For example, we learned 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 that it was perfectly permissible to borrow objects from our friends and neighbors, but that we were responsible for caring for those objects. We learned that if those objects were somehow damaged, even if that damage was not due to our negligence, we had to compensate the object’s owner. Yes, we learned to borrow responsibly, but we also learned the importance of lending our possessions to others, especially others less fortunate than ourselves. We learned that we were responsible for helping others, and that that obligation extended even to strangers in our midst; indeed, it extended all the more to those strangers.
And we learned to be responsible for our very words, and to distance ourselves from lies and falsehoods.
All this from a grade school introductory course in Talmud!
How valuable our Torah is as a guide to a truly ethical life, and how fortunate are those of us who learned these lessons early in life or who discover them at a later age! What an opportunity we all have to awaken ourselves to these vital ethical teachings by attentively listening to this week’s Torah portion!
Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is the Executive Vice President Emeritus of the Orthodox Union.