Damage control

The laws and consequences of human behavior.

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Rabbi Berel Wein,

Torah scroll (illustrative)
Torah scroll (illustrative)
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The Talmud develops the complex laws that are laid out here in this week’s Torah reading for us. In fact, a great proportion of the tractates of the Talmud are involved in explaining the words, ideas and practical implications of the verses that appear in this week’s Torah reading.

Judaism is a religion of behavior and practicality and not only of soaring spirituality and otherworldly utopian ideas. It presupposes that there will be physical altercations between people, that property will be damaged, that human beings will behave in a less than sanguine fashion and that monetary and physical consequences for such behavior are necessary in order to allow for society to function.

Above all else, the Torah is clear eyed about human nature and behavior. It does not believe that human beings left to their own resources and ideas will behave in a good, honest and noble fashion. The Torah stated at the beginning of its message to humanity that the nature of human beings is unhealthy and evil from the onset of life. Unless it is managed, controlled and channeled into positive deeds and thought processes steered towards higher and nobler goals, human beings will be little different than the beasts of prey, which inhabit the animal world.

This is the reason the Torah and Talmud go to such lengths and detail to explain to us the laws and consequences of human behavior and of the interactions between one human being and another. This is what traditional Judaism meant when it said that Baba Kama  – the laws of torts and damages – is the best book of Jewish ethics available.

The problem that has gnawed at human society over the ages is how to create and maintain a fair, just and productive society. Humankind has yet to come up with the perfect solution to this basic problem. This is not for lack of trying and experimentation. Nevertheless the search continues. The Torah reading of this week leaves me with the impression that the perfect society will not appear on this earth in this human cycle.

The laws of the Torah, as expressed in this week’s parsha, are really those of damage control. They do not envision a world of voluntary altruism on the part of all. There will be people who negligently cause damage to others. There will be people who will do so willfully. The Torah says very little about preventing such occurrences. It speaks only to legal and monetary consequences that these occurrences bring about.

This is not a pessimistic view of life and humans. Rather, it is a realistic assessment of human nature and of the inevitable consequences that are always present in the interaction of human beings. By viewing the the consequences of human behavior, only then can one hope to influence this failure and to prevent strife and damage to others.

The nineteenth century posited that humanity had turned the corner and the societies in the world would only become better and better. The twentieth century shattered that illusion. Therefore, we should remain realistic, drive defensively and work on ourselves to become better people who will not allow lawlessness and anarchy to rule our world.